Monthly Archives: April 2012

Plotting my Novel with Post-Its: obsessive compulsive much?

I’ve been pondering how best to plot my second novel for a while now. Not as in what the story should be but as in how, physically, to write down what should happen. Some authors use index cards. Some use computer programs like Scrivener.

Some, of course, don’t write anything like that down at all: those authors are known in the trade as “pantsers”, as in “fly by the seat of”. That was how I wrote my first draft, which consisted mainly of one plot line: Louisa, who’s an evangelical Christian, falls for Aaron, who isn’t, and whom she consequently is not advised to date. There were occasional references to the primary campaign they were working on – mainly to move them from place to place and give them temptations like beds in hotel rooms – but that was it.

But I called it Primary Season for a reason. (Apologies for the terrible and unintentional rhyme there.) I didn’t want to write just another doomed love story, fun as those are. I wanted to explore what it might be like to work on a primary campaign in the – gasp! – Democratic Party as an evangelical Christian, and I wanted to do that from several angles. I also wanted to write a book that the kind of women who miss The West Wing might enjoy.

This means that I need more than one plot line. (Every novel does, in any case.) I need to weave in various scandals and debates and ad campaigns and press leaks. And I am not (yet?) skilled enough to be able to hold all those things in my head and mesh them together without the use of coloured Post-It notes.

Not only are there the plot lines to bear in mind, there’s also the timeline. Aaron and Louisa’s non-relationship needs to move along at a realistic pace, and needs to somehow fit into the schedule of primaries and caucuses and town hall meetings. It all becomes a delicate balancing act.

I also want some kind of system that shows me clearly which scenes I have already written, and which scenes I still need to write.

I could not come up with a system that did all of those things at the same time, in a clear, visual way, preferably not involving a computer. The nearest I’d come was this graph-like structure:

 

 

That works quite well as a general outline, and I may still use it, to show the main plot points and the fluctuations in the Candidate’s numbers as well as in Aaron and Louisa’s non-relationship (which would be in a different colour, just above the yellow Post-Its.). But it doesn’t help me with the kind of detailed outline that I need – scene by scene – and it also doesn’t provide a way for me to easily see which scenes still need to be written.

 

Cue a Google search of “planning my novel with Post-Its”. I discovered Julie Cohen’s blog, and her solution seemed to work well for me. Best of all, she was doing it with Post-Its and paper. But she didn’t have a timeline that I could see – and she didn’t have the issue of needing to separate finished and unfinished scenes.

 

Then – possibly in a midnight epiphany – I remembered this pin I’d liked on Pinterest. (The idea, and the picture, comes from jenhewett.blogspot.com.) If I adapted the model a little, I could use a left hand page for scenes written, and the facing right hand page for scenes yet to be done. Once I’ve written a scene, I move the corresponding Post-It from the right hand side to the left hand side.

 

 

 

And as for the timeline, each set of 2 facing pages of my Atoma notebook can be used per month of the campaign. Why an Atoma notebook, I hear you ask? Because you can move the pages around. So if it turns out that I have more scenes in August than will fit on the two pages, then hey presto, I just add a page to August (without having to calculate how many pages I think I might need and then panic when the system threatens to break down). Plotting needs to be flexible – which is why I like Post-Its; they’re so easy to move.

 

Obsessive compulsive much?

 

I had fun tonight. Step 1 is to take each plot strand and break it down into scenes (and believe it or not, this whole process helps me think up new scenes, too, since it helps me to see a logical sequence of events). So, below, we have one of the storylines that I will be threading through the novel. Mostly, it’s a campaign-based storyline – hence the blue (for Democrat!), but there’s also a bit of Aaron-and-Louisa (in purple), and Louisa-on-the-campaign (in light green). And where there are two Post-Its (thank you, Julie Cohen), it’s to show that two of the plot strands are being developed at once in a scene.

 

 

 

 

When I’ve done this for all the various strands (assuming Viking Direct Belgium get their act together and finally deliver the next lot of Post-It notes, since I need more colours), the fun (and the headaches) will really begin: threading them together and pacing the various stories so they fill the months required.

 

If you’re really lucky, I’ll write another post, complete with a photo or six to show off my efforts.

 

Oh, and then, all I need to do is write the thing.

 

 

 

 

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“What’s happening with your book?”

It makes me happy when people ask me what’s happening with my book. It also bemuses me a little, since I often assume that by now my entire entourage know that if I had any kind of news, I would be plastering it all over the internet.

But in any case, if you missed the excitement in my tweets and Facebook profile a few weeks back, here are the three main things happening at the moment.

– Inevitable is now at number 4 on Authonomy.

This, theoretically at least, means that it will make the top five on 1st May, after a year on the site and many more hours faffing around on it than I care to count. Every month, the five at the top of the list get whisked away to the desk of a HarperCollins editor (at least, we all hope it’s an editor and not a junior editorial assistant in her first week of work experience), and several weeks or sometimes months later an extensive comment is received. We all hope it’ll be accompanied by the instant offer of a publishing contract, but it hardly ever is.

Still, though, reviews can be very useful if you are seeking to make changes prior to self-publication, or if you want to write to agents with soundbites like “HarperCollins said this book had an interesting premise.” And I just want to get there now. (Which, by the way, you can help me with, if you go here, take thirty seconds or so to register, and then click “back the book”. Thank you!)

– Meanwhile, I’ve also paid to have a couple of professional reviews done. The first from the London Writers’ Club, which is run by two literary agents who offer to report back on your first 50 pages, plus – crucially – the query letter and synopsis that have, in my case, failed to enthuse anyone in the publishing world so far. That one was kind of devastating – mainly because I felt as if they hadn’t “got” my book, but had tried to pigeonhole it into something it isn’t, and doesn’t want to be – but it did contain nuggets of helpfulness. The second was much more useful – it’s a wonderful scheme for new writers run by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in which you get an in-depth critique of the whole novel from an experienced writer. I got a detailed six-page report which was encouraging but not pandering and gave me many useful pointers.

– The most exciting thing to happen so far has been that through a connection with an author whose work I love, I got to send Inevitable to an editor at a major New York publishing house. (You don’t usually get to do that except through an agent, and I haven’t managed to snag one of those yet.) I haven’t heard anything back, and in a way I’m not surprised – but the set of circumstances which led to this were fairytale-like and inspired the plot for my third novel, so that’s good enough for me. Well, almost.

So now I have a choice. Either way, I am going to work on it some more, but then what? Self-publishing? I was dead against this a year ago, but am coming round to the idea. Most importantly, it gets your work out there rather than keeping it sitting in a draw. It’s so cheap, so easy, and people I know are making decent money at it. But should that be the main consideration? No, it shouldn’t. In a way, I wish I’d never looked into the world of publishing. I deliberately avoided all of that in my first 18 months of serious writing because I wanted to write for the pleasure of writing. And that childlike innocence is not something I’ll ever be able to recover.

Since I’m hopefully about to spend two years working on my writing – and, crucially, getting coaching – I am thinking I should probably hold off in any case. If, by the time I have my MFA from American University (sorry, I just have to keep saying that!) and have reworkedInevitable and met several agents, there is still no interest, then I probably will take the plunge. Or, by then, I’ll be wise enough to know not to bother. Either way, though,Inevitable will always have a place in my heart and I think I’ll always be proud of it.

Meanwhile, I’m working on my second novel. Primary Season tells the story of an evangelical Christian named Louisa Perry who works in Democratic politics. It’s not always easy, let me tell you, and it’s not made any easier by her crush on the maddeningly attractive Aaron Rosenberg. A lighter read? Welllll, maybe. Hopefully not a predictable one, though.

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