Little Bits Of Plotting (or how I made it through NaNo)
2005 December 15 11:18 CET

I suppose this might also be called plotting your way out of trouble. It's something I've been doing in various forms for a while now, but last month during NaNoWriMo I refined the process further. I actually started trying to write this article during NaNo but found myself lacking time. Not surprising since I managed to do not just the regular 50K NaNo calls for, but over twice as much. Which probably wouldn't have been quite as much if it hadn't been for this technique. Interested yet?

First of all where I'm coming from. I'm not a plotter by nature, I'm what's often called an "organic writer", I just write naturally and see where the story takes me. There's nothing wrong with plotting if it works for you, but for me it doesn't. When I plan too much of the story ahead of time I tend to lose interest in actually writing it. But writing the organic way is not without its problems either. The biggest one is getting stuck; if you plot you tend to know where you're going next (indeed this is what kills some of the fun for me) well ahead of time, but if you write without plotting first you probably won't have more than a general idea of where the story will end at some point in the (distant) future.

Normally getting stuck doesn't have to be much of a problem. Much of the time an idea will come to me if I just let things rest for a few hours, perhaps a day or so. It can be much worse than that of course, writer's block spares no-one, but during NaNo even a day is unacceptable as a delay. Long hot showers sometimes help, and I've had good results with everything from different music to different font-sizes, but even then there are still times you remain stuck. And by the time you've run through twenty odd songs, and an equal number of fonts and sizes you definitely want another solution. Which, for me, is the process below.

One final note before I reveal this much talked about process. After I started work on the first draft of this article I noticed a post about a similar process on the NaNo forums. That one was a very specific growing from one sentence to about 500 words system posted, I think, by Lazette Gifford (aka Zette). My process is somewhat different from the one she described (it doesn't use anything as nice as whole sentences for starters) but it does show that this type of process can be done with different levels of abstraction.

  • Find wayward clan
  • Return to empire
  • Meet up again in Diba
It doesn't look like much but this is one of my current lists, made around November 29th and still not completed (the writing slowed ubruptly from December 1st). Right now for the first time since I've used this process I have two lists, because I ran into trouble while my MCs were (an are still) split into two parties. To an outsider it probably looks like code so I'll explain.

The list actually only gives things in the most general terms possible. Indeed this list is something of an exercise in the obvious. Around the time I wrote this list the group this one is for had already been tasked to find a wayward clan, suspected of trying to start a war. Since the rest of my MCs were heading for the empire at the same time, to stop the people trying to start a war from the other side of the border, it was obvious this group would have to return there as well (difficult with a tense situation along the border). Finally, because of something my other MCs had to do, I chose the port of Diba for the two groups to meet up again. But obvious or not the list does keep me on track, with far more going on than you'd expect from reading something this general.

For starters the wayward clan we were looking for turned out not to be guilty. Which meant returning to the empire became a chase after another clan, which actually was guilty, followed by a battle between forces from two different clans. Right now point two is nearly complete, but before we've fully returned to the empire the clan with the proverbial white hats, and the MCs currently with them, will have to talk their way out of a tense standoff with imperial troops that have over three times their remaining numbers. While I can't be sure about anyone reading this I doubt many people would think those three lines include around 800 casualties in a single battle, I sure as hell didn't when I wrote it.

That's really why this works for me to begin with. It reminds me of what has to happen next, but it still leaves a whole lot of detail to be filled in when I actually write it. Even some major events can still intrude at random without invalidating the list - I had no idea my original wayward clan would turn out to be innocent when I made the list. On rare occasions I may include far more detailed steps, usually when I want to be sure I don't forget some good idea I had ahead of time. But mostly I keep the lists very general. On any given entry in a list I'd expect to get at least 1000 words and possibly more than double that. Also, except again in the case of particular details, my lists don't include the how of anything. Only what has to happen, how it happens is for me to figure out when I'm actually writing. And even then I only make these lists when I'm in trouble. I used about six of them in total I think, with between two and five entries each, in 100k words. But most of those words aren't covered by any of the lists.

Of course there is no rule that says this has to work for anyone but me. But the basic concept at least should be useful and you can adept the lists to the degree of detail you need to get or keep going. You could even make entries like this for a whole novel in advance, although I'm sure there are better ways of plotting a whole novel if you're a plotting type of person. This is purely a way for me to plot myself out of trouble. Which might even be useful for others.

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