Bear with me, here.
There are some things in life that any one of us can easily become OCD about. Our writing and the way we do it is one of them. The longer we write, the more particular we become in our ways and habits.
Some people must have a certain type of pen or pencil before starting a writing project. Some people feel they must be facing a certain direction at their desk that lets creativity flow more easily. Okay, that's taking it a bit beyond normalcy, but I've been known to move my desk and hope for better mental clarity...and words that come easy. Yeah, I'm weird.
When I consciously decided to give putting words on paper a try, not long after birth, I think it was, I sat down with an old, third-hand, portable typewriter, a stack of various types of paper (remember onion skin?) and began to create a story. I had no intention of publishing a book. I had only the need to create, using the overactive imagination I'd been born with and honed to a fine degree as an only child. (We onlies have a habit of living in our own little worlds, because, well, when there's no one else around, we get lonely and need company...even if it's the company of fictional beings we create in our own little minds.)
I finished that book, all thousand-plus pages, 3 1/2 inches thick, single-spaced on both sides of the paper, then stuck it away in a drawer. I have no idea to this day whether there was anything remotely salvageable in it. I don't even know what happened to it. Trashed, I surely hope. And I didn't write again or even have the desire to write.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and my oldest daughter was in middle school reading the Babysitters Club series. Certain I could do at least as well if not better, I took off like a bullet again. This time I took a correspondence course in writing for children and teens. But due to family issues, I quit mid-stream and still knew nothing about how to plot. I simply sat and wrote, hoping inspiration would lead me from a beginning to an end.
And then along came romance. The writing bug bit again, and off I went, writing a story, page by page, with no idea where it might be leading. With that one finished, I started another and also started paying attention to story structure. No, not the tried and true such as The Hero's Journey, just the basic stuff I noticed in books and somehow internalized. I joined RWA and WARA. I went to writers conferences, became close friends with other writers throughout the U.S., and I wrote at least a dozen books from beginning to end without a clue where they or the characters were going.
My critique partners insisted I learn to plot. Plot? Me? You've got to be kidding! Why would I want to spoil the adventure? "Because," they told me, "once you sell, you'll start selling on proposal (first 3 chapters and a synopsis), and you won't have the luxury of writing the whole book before submitting it to your editor. Besides, why write an entire book, only to have it shot down because it doesn't fit the publisher/editor's particular taste?"
It was nice of them to actually believe I would sell a book and become a published author, but, really? And then I got THE CALL. The sale of my second book came shortly after the first, thankfully an already completed manuscript. One of those dozen or more that were never plotted. Then came my chance at a third, and my editor wanted to see something a little different. All I needed to do was to send a proposal! Yea!! Oh, no!! Yikes!!
I learned to plot.
It's amazing what we can do when we have to. Minutes ago, I pulled up my first attempt at plotting on that third book, which is buried in files on my computer, and I chuckled. Did I really plot this way? Did I even have a clue what I was doing? But the book sold, and I went on to sell more. And I've honed my plotting, making changes as I've gone along, tweaking things here and there, and basically making it more convoluted that anything should ever be, but it works for me. Most of the time.
The whole point I'm trying to make is that sometimes we have to make changes we never considered considering. The pantster in me morphed into a plotter. I've tried to sit down and simply write a story, the way I used to. I can't do it. I can't see the road ahead. I don't know where I'm going. My heart begins to race, my chest tightens, and my hands get clammy. My brain freezes. I can't C R E A T E.
It's like taking a road trip. As a child, I sat in the front seat with my parents, boosted by a box with a padded lid that my dad made for me so I could not only see out the windshield, but have somewhere to keep my Little Golden Books and coloring books. I learned at an early age how to read a map, and I followed the route we took to our numerous destinations. (My mother had to stop at each waterfall, canyon, cave, big tree, pile of rocks...) Even still, when I travel, I keep a map at hand, even when I'm perfectly capable of getting from one place to another. It's a comfort thing, I guess.
It's the same with plotting. I feel safer knowing where I'm headed and how I'll reach my destination: that Happily Ever After.
There are as many ways to plot as there are plotters and writers. We each see our story in a different way. Even true pansters use a bit of plotting, although it isn't written down, but is more moving forward from one point to the next. I use a storyboard that's been beaten into what I need to plot. It's detailed...to a degree. I know how long my books usually are, and I know from experience what turning points and pinches are and where they happen to make the reading experience--and the experiences of the characters--a good one. (I hope!) But I don't know exactly what is going to happen in each scene. That's left for my over-active and ever-galloping imagination. Bits and pieces of scenes play out in my mind over a period of time. Snippets of dialogue between characters whisper in my head. I create a file and keep them. They may or may not be used, but I have a terrible memory, along with being a visual person, so I have to see it to remember. Yes, I keep notes. Everywhere.
Basic plotting tips?
- Do you know where and how and with which character your story will open?
- Do you understand how to use hooks? Can you keep a reader turning the page at the end of a chapter? Or even a scene?
- Do you understand turning points and how they're used?
- Do you know what the Black/Dark Moment is in your story and how you will resolve it to get to that HEA?
- Do you have a clue what the terms "story arc" and "pacing" mean?
- At the very least, do you have an idea of the beginning, middle, and end of your story?