Plot or Not: How Do You Write a Book?

March 14, 2011

As a non-fiction writer, I’ve always used an outline. I pick my topic, decide on 3-4 main points, and do my research. Then I write, usually writing the body of my article first, then the opening and closing. I use the same basic outline that I’ve used since my 7th grade speech class. You would think that in switching to fiction it would be natural for me to use an outline, but the truth is, this has been a real challenge for me.

Up until this point all of my fiction writing has been pretty “free form.” I’ve let the characters tell the story, and I find out what’s going to happen as it pours out onto the page. I have a nearly completed novel of over 500 pages handwritten…entirely without an outline.

The project I’m currently working on is a steamy romance novel. I wrote about three chapters letting my heroine tell the story, and things moved along pretty smoothly. Then I started reading some writing blogs by published novelists, and started thinking that maybe I should have my synopsis done, and the first three chapters polished before I went on.

And suddenly I’ve become blocked. Yes, a big concrete block wall went up, and I can’t see past it.

I’ve never had writer’s block in my life. In fact, for me there’s never been a question about what I would write, only how I would find the time to write everything I want to put into print. Who would think that the very tool that is the foundation of my non-fiction writing would be the trigger for a solid wall of writer’s block when writing fiction?

My husband told me he wanted me to take out my first still unfinished book and read it. When I was writing “Angella” (until the book is done I always call it by the heroine’s first name), our boys were small, and I would stay up late at night letting Angella pour her story and her life onto the page. Paul would come home from work everyday and want to read whatever I’d gotten done the night before. (He is my biggest fan!) One night he had fallen asleep on the sofa next to me while my pen flew across pages of loose leaf paper. At 2 a.m. he woke up and asked, “Honey, aren’t you ready to go to bed yet?”

“No,” I answered, pen never stopping, “Angella isn’t finished yet!”

Paul laid back down on the sofa next to me, but the next evening he told me that all day long he’d been thinking about what I’d said, and he was a little worried about whether I was actually writing or possessed.

So to get back to the point, he told me he wanted me to take out “Angella,” and read it, and I did. I hadn’t looked at this manuscript in nearly 15 years. It was like reading something new, but what I found was that as I read, Angella returned to life for me, I was drawn back into her story. She had told her own story better than I could plot it out, and after she had told her story I was able to go back rewrite, edit, organize and craft the story that Angella had given me. Does that sound a little insane? Well maybe, but a little insanity seems to work for me.

So, “plot or not”? I’m hoping that doing a little of both will work for me. A few index cards with my main plot points and some flexibility as I write. Or maybe I’ll do as my son, Jayson, suggested and just write the opening and the ending (exactly the opposite of how I write non-fiction), and then let the character tell the story that happened in the middle.

Any of you have ideas out there? What do you think? Plot or not?


6 Responses to “Plot or Not: How Do You Write a Book?”

  1. KimberlyFDR Says:

    For my smaller works, I always just give my characters a starting place and let them take the story wherever they want to go. For my novel, however, I HAVE to have a rough “major points” outline else the characters would wander themselves straight back into a short story (which is how the idea originated). That’s not to say my characters are bound to the outline or that the outline can’t change or expand as the characters and plot develops, but it’s nice to see where I’m headed towards as I go through the process.

    What I’ve done on this project is have a separate outline file and refer to it before I begin the day’s writing, but I have each major line in the outline tagged to its own page (on the outline file) and that page’s contents is the inspiration of the scene of the day. So I’ll have something like “Travel, Store, Conversation” as the line and I might have scribbled in some dialogue snippets or another later line I want to include on the outline page, so that’s what I concentrate on for that day. I know where I’m going, but I don’t feel the need to make the character to conform to any type of step-by-step process. They have their voice and I have my ever-changing map to guide me along the way.

    • taristhread Says:

      Cynthia, you are so organized, and I like the way you work, outline, but still following your character’s voice. For me it seems the minute I started trying to outline, I lost my heroine’s voice, and the story came to a standstill.

  2. Characters start the story writing process for me. I think up one at a time. If my heroine appears first, I spend days thinking about her behavior, background and struggles. Eventually, I start wondering about what sort of hero would help her conquer the problems in her life. I reverse the process if the hero shows up first.

    While I don’t plot on paper, I do have a story concept that guides me. That concept originates from my characters’ struggles, and I almost always have a hazy solution tucked away as I begin writing.

    From then on, I write, and I allow some dramatic twists and turns. In fact, my entire story concept can change on the revelations of one chapter. When that happens, I sit with what I’ve written for a few days and decide how to proceed. I never revert to the original though. I treat my characters like the people in my life, and I try not to manipulate them. 🙂


  3. taristhread Says:

    Elley, this is much more the way I work, and I’m thinking “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” So, I’ve read through the work I’ve done so far, and I’m going on from here, letting Randi lead the way, ideas tucked away in my head, but not trying to force them into the story…..we’ll see what comes next…..

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