Practical Plotting

Writing pal Bob is working on a new idea for a book, the first novel he’s written in awhile. Bob has published a bunch of funny and clever mysteries, but, as most writers find, every new book is another challenge. First you need an idea. Then you need to convince yourself it’s not boring. Bob sent a three or four sentence elevator pitch about the book in his head. It was not boring.

Bob moved on with a synopsis draft. Here he writes out exactly what the book will be about and who his characters will be and how the plot will turn. He has the story worked out in his head! Yes, Bob is a plotter. I find plotters fascinating. But this time, Bob has a problem.

“I’m writing a much longer summary than usual,” he said. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but being the helpful writing friend, I offered to send him a version of Jane Cleland’s Road Map, which I wrote more about here. I say “a version of” because after I diagramed the road map, and tried filling it in, I customized it to fit onto a notebook page. Here I’m simplifying it down to two lines of writer’s code.

Inciting Incident-SP1-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-Turning Point-All Plots Resolved

Inciting Incident: Where does the problem start? The point at which the story and character are headed into a mystery and there is no turning back. Start there.

SP stands for subplot. I like two. Introduce the first one about 30 pages in for a 300 page novel. (I write short novels). Another thing about subplots…if you don’t have, let’s say, a romance subplot, but an agent or your editor wants one, just write a love story for your character. Then you can piece it up and place it in 3 or 4 slots in the book. You can do both your subplots this way.

Turning Points need to escalate the drama, turn the heat higher. Lots of people call these Plot Twists. I think of them as going deeper into the mystery. There’s new information that changes everything the main character thinks they knew.

When the story hits the highest possible point of tension, the subplots braid together with the main plot. Each illuminates the other and all need to fit into the final resolution. I like to use one of the subplots to put a “sting in the tail” ~ just one final twist the reader never saw coming but also makes absolute sense.

Speaking of sense, I hope this made some. Questions or observations?

How To Get Published

When my writing group came over Saturday for breakfast and critique, I showed them the book stack photo I’d posted on Instagram. The book stack was all the books we’ve published since we’ve been together, but I had a feeling there were a few I’d missed. Turns out yes, there were even more books.

What I was right about is that none of us had published any of the books in the stack before we became a group eight years ago. And now we’ve got 15 books of fiction published between us, with four more on the go. Two of us had published a few books before, but the other two had not published anything, although they had lots of novels in manuscript form. We accomplished the getting published part together. Our monthly Saturday morning meetings have made me (and I hope, each of them) a better and more prolific writer.

Maybe because I knew I needed them, I started the group. It went through a few iterations before it became the firmly committed four of us, two women and two men, novelists all. And look at what we’ve done together. Everyone in the group seemed as stunned and satisfied as I’d felt when I had gathered those books into a stack and snapped that photo. It’s real, it’s tangible proof. Writing groups help writers get published.

I’ve been in many writing groups though the years, and all of them have had benefits, but this small group is the one that I count on when it comes to publishing a new novel. It took me a long time to find these folks, or rather, they found me. And I’m endlessly grateful. My life has been enriched by each of them, and not just my writing life. We’re all married forever types and the spouses are an extended part of our circle. They join us for breakfast before we get down to work. We see each other socially with our partners, too.

They stick by me, loyal even as I absent myself from Michigan for a few months these last few years. I can always count on them to tell me the truth, even when it hurts. None of us is a cruel critic, but we are honest. We are not simply cheerleaders for each other, although we are that. Our highest priority is to help each other write the best books we can, and sometimes that means saying the difficult things. In our favor is the fact that we all understand our core function: to help each other get it right, and get published, again and again.

Writing is a lonely job. You really won’t understand that until you’ve spent the time required to write and publish a book or ten. And that’s another key ingredient to a writing group: friendship with others who are committed to the writing life. I value these writers so highly. They get it, the writing thing, like nobody else, not even a spouse, does. I’m grateful to have them in my life. They help make being a writer less lonely. And they absolutely are the reason I have published such a satisfying number of books.

Wanna get published? Join a writer’s group. Or start one yourself.