Build your own adventure.

Probably every writer works in a slightly different way. I usually write my books in order, starting with Chapter 1. Other people write key scenes and then knit them together later. The same is true of plotting a novel. I really like Rachel Aaron’s advice about figuring out where you want to end up and then working backwards. That’s not, however, the way I usually work. It’s probably my training as a project manager, but I treat the plot and subplot like a complex, multifaceted project.

Anne Rowling Clinic, Edinburgh, Scotland

For example, when I was working on the Anne Rowling Clinic project at the University of Edinburgh, I had an overall goal: make sure that, at the end of a certain period of time, we went from having a giant hole in the ground to having a functioning research clinic. But we couldn’t just focus on that one outcome. In order to make hole=building, we needed to work with patient focus groups and architects to get the design right, provide continuous progress reporting to university higher-ups and the major donor, hire staff, create a website, design a logo, choose furniture and interior finishes, ensure IT integration with the hospital and the university, get National Health Service approval, work with relevant charities and patient advocacy groups and approximately eleventy jillion other tasks. Within each of the tasks I’ve listed, there is a mini project. For example, “hiring staff” actually means creating a job description, getting it graded and approved, forming a search committee, advertising the post, collecting resumes, vetting candidates, scheduling a day for interviews, inviting candidates for interviews, reserving an interview room, informing the successful candidate, doing the hiring paperwork. Rinse. Repeat.

Plot points
My handy dandy strips o’ plot for my next novel, The Burnt Island Burial Ground (summer 2015)

And so it is with writing a novel. To me, it doesn’t do much good to focus on your main story arc and forget about all the subplots. They are not filler, but will likely form about 90% of your book. And every significant plot point has an effect on the others. If your main character’s house gets broken into, she has to clean up the mess, get a locksmith, make repairs, live somewhere else for awhile, or whatever. She might become paranoid about locking her doors or not being left alone. Actions have consequences, both in real terms and in terms of character development.

I plot my novels using little fortune-cookie paper sized strips. I write down the significant plot points for each story that needs to be told. Then I lay them all out in order. Sometimes I realize that something that I’d planned to happen late in the novel actually needs to happen at the beginning, so that other, dependent plots can be set in motion. Many times, I realize that what sounded good inside my brain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense when I commit it to paper or look at it alongside everything else. I can often see where more detail is going to be needed to take characters from point A to point B-ook.

Best of all, as soon as I finish this paper plotting process, I type everything into a Word document with my book’s title. So usually, when I actually start writing, I already have a 2-3 page plot document to structure my work. It avoids the dreaded blinking-cursor-on-blank-page and instills me with confidence that I know what story I’m going to tell. All of this is, of course, highly mutable. But for me, just getting words down on paper really helps in avoiding writer’s block.

Okay, I must get back to writing now, because I’m still staring at a gaping hole in the ground where a book needs to be.

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