Ashe Elton Parker

A Writer of LGBTQ+ Characters in Speculative Fiction

Tag: plotting

Writing from Plot Points

I’m trying something new with my writing right now. On some of my projects—a few of the incomplete ones—I’m seeing how well I can write scenes directly from plot points.

Generally, my new habit has been to plot point things out as well as possible from the beginning or the point where I stopped. Then from those plot points, I extrapolate an outline. Frequently, I’ll write from the outline as I create it, up to 15-20 cards, then outline one for every scene written. I’ve discussed this method before, I believe. It seems to work fairly well for me, especially with projects where I’ve hit a wall I haven’t been able to work past before I do the plot points on them.

So instead of that, I’ve recently been putting down plot points to write from directly. This is a bit different than using the plot points to extrapolate plot cards. For one thing, the plot points offer a broader “view” of the wip. To keep myself from being overwhelmed with this method, I’ve been plot-pointing the next string of 4-8 scenes. Much more beyond 8, and I start getting overwhelmed.

I may have four plot points, but the scenes they encompass may come out to more. Instead of offering me the detail the outline does, the plot points provide me with a general picture of the scenes they describe, leaving things wide open for my interpretation of the plot points. With an outline, I’m “restricted” to what I have written on the card, and it’s frequently quite detailed, sometimes including dialogue. With writing from plot points alone, I don’t have that level of detail. It may be in my mind, but it’s not something I focus on until I reach that particular bit in my writing.

It’s a much more flexible style of planning out a work than the outline is. One thing I like about it is that I don’t have to plot-point out an entire story before starting on the outline. Though I now have Scapple, a brainstorming/plotting program by the makers of Scrivener, I still tend to use it as I used to plot point things out in Scrivener: by plotting scenes out of order.

In writing, I’m a linear thinker. While getting plot points or even plot cards out of my head out-of-order is possible, the resultant mess always drives up my anxiety and slows me down because I don’t want to deal with the cleanup necessary. With my writing-from-plot-points experiment, I’ve been plotting out the next number of scenes in order, then writing from the plot points until I have no more to extrapolate from. Then I write up more plot points, write from them, and so on.

So far, on the projects I have this new method running, things are going fairly well. I’ve been able to move past the blocks I’ve had on them and make progress. I feel comfortable with this method—in some ways more comfortable than plotting, outlining, and then writing makes me feel, but I’ll be continuing with that method on new projects, especially since the Scapple program makes it so easy to reorganize my messy plot points into a linear “picture” of the plot I intend for the story.

When I Get “Real Writers’ Block”

I spoke briefly in a previous post about why my plotting sometimes doesn’t go well. But, while writing downswings are one of the most common reasons I struggle with my writing, they aren’t the only reason I do.

The other major reason why I have difficulty with plotting is because I simply haven’t thought something through well or deeply enough to see what else is possible in the story. Frequently, I’ll get so far in the outline and hit a block point where I come across something I haven’t given adequate thought to. Well, not conscious thought; frequently, in scenes I’ve written up to this point, I’ll later find I’ve set up the plot point I’m now working out.

This situation requires a little more effort than stepping away from the writing for a while. What I frequently discover when I hit a block like this, is that I want to read another story, either complete or not, set in the same world. I think this is my subconscious wanting to do two things: 1. take a break from the main WIP; and 2. refresh itself on what I’ve written previously. This is good for a few reasons, but one of the primary ones is that often I’ll come up with worldbuilding “facts” about the world or plotting ideas for other stories, including my current main project, while doing this. It’s a break from things, but one which pushes the current project forward in some way.

Then, once I’m done reading other WIPs, I’ll return to the current main project and read through it. This may or may not spark any fresh ideas, and I don’t always get them as I’m reading through what I have written already. After I read to the point where I stopped writing, I’ll do a little something else—say play a simple mind-numbing game, or devote some time to chatting with a friend on the phone or online. The key here is to keep myself busy, but not so much so I’m filling my mind with other information. Too much other information, even if it’s in my conscious mind, tends to interfere with my realizations of what the plot can do.

Once I’ve backbrained things for a bit, I read through the plot cards I have with an eye for pulling out subplots and emphasizing the main plot. Sometimes, when I get to the point where I’ve stopped the story’s outline, I have ideas for a plot card or two. Most of the times, it’s not so easy. I’ll go through this process several times before I try other tactics, because this usually eventually works, even if I have to repeat the process more than a couple times.

So I go do something mindless again while things percolate. I’ll go for a walk, do housework. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do something which totally occupies my mind at the same time it leaves it open for inspiration. Best thing for this is showering. I’m so busy thinking about what body part I need to scrub next and singing along with the radio, it gives my conscious mind a total break from the writing. I never come up with ideas while in the shower, but I’ve come back to my desk plenty of times after one, settled down in my after-shower robe, and inspiration will strike while I’m clipping my nails or mindlessly chatting with friends online.

If none of this works—and sometimes it doesn’t—I read a book I’m very familiar with. Old books I know well leave the mental door open for ideas for my writing, and sometimes even spark ideas. Books I’ve not read before aren’t so good for that. Also, I’ll try watching a movie I’ve seen many times before—for the same reason. It inspires and leaves the creative door open. Generally speaking, though, I’m much too focused on my writing to step away from the computer to watch a movie, so I don’t do that much.

But usually, I’ll figure out a plot card long before I have to resort to the movie-watching method of creative inspiration. I wrote it “Real Writers’ Block” because I don’t think there’s such a thing as writers’ block. I think we can all work our way past the difficulties we’ve written into our stories if we remain focused and determined and go seeking the inspiration we need—which is why most of my efforts involve remaining at the computer and actively concentrating on my work somehow. The other methods generally don’t work quite as well, and I when I return to the computer, I end up going through my WIPs and outlines a number of times again before inspiration does strike.

I firmly believe you have to hunt down inspiration and beat it on the head before it’ll work in a habitual manner, which is why I think having a regular writing schedule and habits around the writing process is a great help. Frequently, even when I’m doing something mindless—I’m doing that so I have a portion of my conscious mind free to devote to working out the plot issue that’s stopped me.

(WIP = Work In Progress)

When Plotting Isn’t Going Well

I’ve talked about when plotting is going well for me. And most of the time, it does. I’m not going to lie and say plotting things out is incredibly easy . . . but it’s not extremely difficult, either.

Unless . . .

I’m struggling to see what’s happening next in an outline. Sometimes it’s because I’m in a general writing downswing, as I am now. Been in it for a while, and when I get like this, nothing moves. Not outlines, not writing, nothing. If I’m lucky, the downswing is a creative one, where I’m actually able to work on other aspects of the writing, like worldbuilding, adding things to the timeline, or, since I’m doing the Two-Year Novel Course, the current week’s exercise for the class. This writing downswing hasn’t been a creative one, though. It gave me a spring-cleaning bug instead. LOL

But sometimes I hit a block while still being in writing-mode—no downswing in sight. I have a few methods for dealing with this.

Thinking all I need to do is recharge my inspiration/writing mind, I will go read a book. I should probably do this more often, as it does indeed help me come up with ideas for my own writing. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll see how another author handled a particular issue I may be struggling with, whether that issue is the reason for the current block or not. Either way, I get some time away from the computer and, if I go to the coffee shop on the corner across the street, a change of scenery.

On occasion, I’ll take my laptop to the coffee shop as well, and, if there’s a table next to a power socket available, plug in my computer and write a bit. This does the same thing as taking a book or my nook to the shop to read, only it’s not as far a break away from my writing. Being in a new place makes my mind more alert, and ideas come easier, so I’m able to plot and write a little easier.

Another method I like to use to jog ideas loose is going on a walk. This is somewhat challenging in the winter (a couple different bladder issues), but during the spring, summer, and fall, I’ll take myself to the park catty-corner to the block where I live and take a walk with a song on repeat on my mp3 player. Walking or being in a moving vehicle has always helped prod my creative mind, and it’s no different these days, though it’s generally best if I’m not concerned with any particular real-life event or errand when I’m walking or being a passenger. I’m not sure why being in movement works for me, but it always has.

The last most common method of dealing with plotting issues is stepping away and working on a craft. Mostly crocheting. I’ll pop a movie I’ve seen lots of times in my DVD player and listen and half-watch it while I twist yarn into afghans and granny squares and scarves. This is soothing as well, and watching my hands work the hook and yarn calms my creative mind enough for me to focus on things better when I come back to my writing. This, however, is something I have to be in the mood for.

Rarely, I’ll make sure my PS2 is hooked up, pop a game in, and play for a while. This is my Need A Total Break method of dealing with plotting issues. One of my last resorts, I don’t often use this method, as I’m far more likely to get something out of one of my other methods before this will work for me. In fact, I get more out of watching somebody else play video games. I zone better watching them than I do when I’m playing them—it’s kind of like my idea-contemplation meditation. I don’t have to work, but it’s interesting to me—more interesting than most TV shows—and it keeps me distracted enough that I’m not dwelling on the problems I’m having with my writing, which enables me to think past the block. When I’m playing myself, I prefer “simple” games. Things which don’t require a lot of mental output, so I’ll play something like a straightforward quest-type without puzzles. MediEvil and Darkstone are good for this; I can pop it in, pick up where I left off, and bash some enemies for a bit. It clears the mind.

When Plotting is Going Well

I used to “pants” (write without planning) every story.

I didn’t complete many stories that way. It didn’t matter how long the story was supposed to be; most of mine are longer than the SFWA definition of 7,500 words, for a short. I write novelettes, novellas, and novels. Mostly novels. And most of them are beyond 40,000 words. I’d frequently hit the halfway point (40k-60k) and fizzle out between there and the three-quarter mark. Because the ideas would fizzle out, and the stress of need another scene to write would block me to the point of abandoning the story.

Then I started reverse outlining incomplete stories I most wanted to complete. Reverse outline cards typically consist of a one or two-sentence summary of the written scene. When I reached the end of the written-out scenes, I’d traditionally outline (do the plot cards before writing the scenes) the rest of the story. I completed a few stories this way.

There were also a couple of stories which I started and abandoned, but which needed full rewrites. Most of the time they had plotting issues. Events happening out of order, periods in the project where I focused on one subplot to the exclusion of every other plot, including the primary one. Stuff like that. These I entirely outlined prior to writing them, and I completed the rewrites. I know now I was able to complete these outlines before writing the stories because I already had almost the entire stories written in some form prior to reorganizing the plot to be workable.

Then I started outlining stories before or as I wrote them. So, I may start, get two scenes; these I’d reverse outline, then add two or three fresh plot cards before writing one scene. Outlines I started before writing began with that pattern. Two or three plot cards per scene written. I completed more stories this way.

When plotting is going well, I find I’m most comfortable working plot cards about ten or twenty cards “ahead” of where I’m writing the scenes from the cards already done. This has been hard to accept, because I’ve been, of course, trying to cling to the RULE that The Outline Must Be Complete Before Beginning Writing. But I reach a certain point in my fresh stories—my speculative fiction stories—where I hit a block in the outline. Usually this block harks back to an earlier point in the outline, and involves an aspect of the story which my subconscious hasn’t presented to my conscious mind. The best way for me to unlock these plot points, I’ve found, is to write out the earlier scene.

So I have a plot card like:

Stirrings Plotcard

This is for Brotherhood A: Stirrings, as you can tell according to character names. The snippet this card covers is on the project page for Stirrings. I would not have been able to write this plot card if I had not worked out already Lorien’s psychology on the wedding, Doéna’s reactions to Lorien’s behavior, and the behind-the-scenes (in my head only) of Necée’s feelings about the situation. I didn’t even know Necée would be this way and why until after I worked out Lorien’s response to the marriage arrangements. I wrote a description of a small portrait of her Lorien received in an information packet, and I can remember thinking at the time, “What if she’s got a sweetheart she’d rather marry?”

That’s all I had on the sweetheart until I included the first scene with Karé, the story’s antagonist, who plots to destroy Lorien’s faith in love and happiness—and Lorien’s standing in Imperial Court. I had no idea just what he’d mean to the story until the moment he introduced himself, and I wouldn’t have had that without first writing the previous scenes out. In writing those scenes out, I learned of the Éecinis, Doéna’s status and standing in the Vénari Court, and the pitfalls he expected in the Imperial Court. Without those, I’d have had nothing to write after the point where Lorien and Doéna arrive at the Imperial Court, at which point I’d have hit my block and been unable to write past if I’d been pantsing the story.

The scenes I’d written gave me the basis for Karé’s presence and conniving nature.

My plot cards have evolved somewhat since then. I now include “dates” on the top margins of the cards, as on this plot card for Degrees of Subtlety:

DoS Plotcard

“2” indicates which plot card this is, which is the second scene in the story. “Arrowroot” is the Point of View character; this story alternates between his and Sweetbriar’s points of view. The “date” is “Fruiting, Rowan 1,” which is the name of the month, day of the week, and which week. I’ve determined, much to my discomfort, the people of Hatu Napor have a 364-day year divided into 13 months of 28 days apiece. Those in the area of the world where Sweetbriar and Arrowroot live have named the months after various natural events which occur throughout the year, and the days after trees to be found in various locales. No year date yet because I haven’t worked out the year-dating system yet, at least not for this hemisphere. I suspect I’ll use something the whole world adheres to, which will most likely have to do with either the appearance or disappearance of the fairies; both events are rather prominent.

The scene summarized includes the snippet I have on DoS’s page. As you can see if you compare the card to the snippet, I didn’t write the scene exactly as described in the card. This was another thing I had to learn, that the scene did not necessarily have to follow the card precisely. Allowing such flexibility enables me to come up with workable scenes which do their jobs. I’ve gotten so flexible I don’t even care if a scene I write matches the plot card which was supposed to inspire it any at all. What I usually write in those unexpected scenes generally serves the story much better than what I’d planned in the plot card. And, if I need, I can later plumb the card for any plot-pertinent info to include in later cards I haven’t yet written.

It bothers me that I’m not completing the outlines before I write the stories, but this is the way my mind works, and, I’ve discovered, I have a tendency to get blocked on plot cards if I’m not writing earlier scenes out. This is why I write ten-to-twenty plot cards ahead of where I’m writing out the scenes. Frequently, I’ll get one or two plot cards and be unable to see just what should happen next. Sometimes letting things percolate in the back of my mind works for moving past such blocks, but more often, I find that if I write out an earlier scene and read through the plot cards between it and the point where I stopped, I’ll come up with a decent idea much, much sooner, and the idea will be much stronger than it would have been if I’d forced myself to outline past the point of when I felt I had to stop.

I occasionally use other methods of plotting, but I won’t go into them here. This post was about my basic Everything Is Going Well plotting method.

Progress on Brotherhood

I’m glad I cut Brotherhood like I did. It’s opened up a whole new storyline for me. Same basic plot, but I’m taking things a little differently. I’m cutting one side character out (a Priest Doéna befriended), moving Bréyan into her place, and using the whole switch-around to set up the relationship which develops between him and Doéna.

Right now, in terms of outlining, it’s moving slowly. I’m kind of struggling to come up with plot cards, but it’s not because I lack ideas. I have plenty of ideas. It’s sorting them into something I can use, then coming up with a scene combining a couple different plot factors.

I’m having fun, though, and I’m very excited about the story again. It thrills me no end to be making such progress on Brotherhood, even if it’s going slowly.

My original plan with it was to copy and paste scenes I wanted to keep from the original manuscript. It seemed to make sense, as there will be places where the two versions meet. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I learned how unwise that would likely be the hard way. I came to a spot where there was a scene I really wanted to keep. So I copied it over, rearranging the scenes I already had around it without paying much attention to what I had written. Then, I proceded to rewrite the scene a couple days later, after writing an interim scene.

I’d forgotten I’d already included this particular scene, which was one where Lorien and Necée spend their first period of Visitation Hours together with their respective chaperones—Doéna and the princess’s cousin, Anée.

I didn’t realize my mistake until I read through the wip from beginning to where it ends. Then I tried to cut/paste the scene from the old wip into a workable spot before finally giving up. It just would not fit. I deleted it completely, reread the past few scenes, changed some things which were mentioned previous to when they actually happened, and now have a story I’m well satisfied with.

Sometimes we writers cause ourselves more work than writing needs to be. LOL

Of course, I made the decision to cut the scene immediately after writing the brand new scene (I hadn’t even written the wordcount total for it down, which I should have done). After cutting the scene, I realized my mistake, but had lost only about 208 words in the cut, so just decided to go with it and recorded it on my logsheet. Thus far, the new logsheet I started has more lines used for cuts and totals following them than for actual additions of words I’ve written. Makes me chuckle. My recording of Brotherhood‘s words has not gone well. This set of logsheets was started off with a patch-in of wordcounts because I shredded the 5×8 index card I had the original logs written on before copying the times and chapter counts over to the proper logsheet. That was, I assure you, enough to convince me not to use index cards for makeshift logsheets again.

As for my Nano project, I’m not moving on that. Need to look at it, see if I can get some more plot cards for it before November. I doubt I have enough written on TPOM3 to make it to 50k words, and I’d rather not have to do the outline as I write. Yes, I’ve left it for the last minute, but I’m backbraining a lot of stuff still, so I haven’t been able to make much progress when I have tried.

Then again, I’ve been really into Brotherhood the past weeks, so I may switch my Nano project over to that and go rebel—add 50k words to what I have already. It’s just moving too slowly for me to have much confidence I’ll be able to keep up with Nano if I use it.

Oh, well. I’ll get something going.

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