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.