On plotting

21 Feb

When I first started writing my manuscript I was shit at plotting. Like really, utterly shit. Like so shit, I think I’m lucky that anyone took my work as seriously as they did. Not only was I shit at plotting, I completely failed to recognise the importance of plotting, even as smart people kept trying to explain it to me. ‘Yes, nice way with words, interesting characters, but what’s happening? Nothing’s happening. What’s the point of this scene? How does your story end? You’ve got no ending, everything just peters out. Where’s your story? What’s the point?’

More than one person tried to explain it to me, but I just didn’t get it. A story needs a story (unless you’re a genre-busting genius, which I am not). It sounds so simple. Now.

I would guess that my plotting shitness meant it took me twice as long to finish the manuscript as it needed to. At least. Possibly three times as long. Perhaps four. And yes, I know that it needed to take me that amount of time because that’s the time I needed to take, and where I am is where I am and etceterar etceterar etceteteraggh, but I really don’t want to go through all that again if I don’t have to. So I’m going to spend a bit of time reflecting on what I have learnt (should that be learned? I’ve never really known).

I think perhaps one of my first mistakes was to forget that I was writing fiction. I worried that because some people might recognise a particular time and a particular place, then I owed those people a faithful recounting of events. I worried that people might say ‘but that didn’t really happen, there was nothing like that, who told you that, where did you get that from?’.

During this time, I did a lot of research. Like, a lot. I read theses and political memoirs. I listened to oral histories. I scoured Hansard. I spent hours and hours on the newspaper readers in the State Library. I spent not insubstantial amounts of money on printing out articles, all the while shoving sultanas at a baby and not fully appreciating how rare is a toddler who will sit and read Maisy and Wheels on the Bus on their own for hours on end while you check just one more issue. I even did an old-fashioned content analysis (I’m assuming it’s old-fashioned because it was the theoretical basis of my thesis which, I note was a fair while ago) of every ‘relevant’ article of every issue ever published. EVER. Like, I have looked at over one hundred years of newspapers – and at some points there was more than one local newspaper. And, just to be thorough, I looked through the papers of a few related towns. Just in case. And then, because I might be missing some vital fact, I researched towns in America with similar experiences. You see? We are talking no stone unturned. Next week, I will be going back to Adelaide to finish packing up my house and putting everything in storage, and we will need an extra shipping container to hold all my photocopying and highlighted theses and the pages where I played around with the index terms I was going to use for my content analysis. That’s how much research I did.

Do you know what I say to ‘write what you know’? Bugger off.

Anyhoo, having done the research, I started to write. And I think that it must be around this time that I began to confuse a sequence of events with a plot. A plot is not simply a sequence of events. What? You already knew that? So did lots of people. But for some reason, I did not and so I blundered on, without this useful – vital – understanding.

During this time, I wrote a lot of words. Like really, a lot. Like thousands and thousands of words. Like I could buy one of those fancy tetrabyte hard drives and not all my first draft would fit on it. Now, I do believe that there is something to be said for writing it out. THere is definitely a time for just sitting there and punching through the words. You can’t get to your third draft without first writing a first draft. And so on. But I remember those times as draining and dispiriting, because even as I wrote, I knew those words were not taking me anywhere.

Then, I did a really dumb thing, and I started using my research. Well, it helped me get my word count up, writing about Italian migrants and miners’ strikes and Italian migrants going on strike. Oh, and not forgetting Italian migrants out hunting for sparrows to put in their stews. There’s a useful 1500 words right there. On and on and on it went. Word after word after word.

It wasn’t working. I stopped.

I don’t know exactly what changed, but maybe I had just enough instinct to know that I needed to stop and that I needed to find what it was inside me that was driving me to tell my story. It wasn’t the Italian migrants and their rumoured sparrow stew I can tell you that.

So, I went back to my original idea which wasn’t really about events at all, it was about two women. Two women whose characters were fully formed even if I did not know their biographies. In fact, all I really knew was that one was young, had a baby, and she had not seen her mother since she was eight years old; and that the other was older, had always been stronger, but was dealing with some sort of grief. I felt these women in the pit of my stomach. I saw things through their eyes. I knew they had things to say if only I would let them say them. They were not miners, they were not Italian migrants, they had never been on strike and as far as I knew they did not cook sparrow stew. But they were the people whose story I wanted to tell.

I went back through the manuscript and took out every single event that had ‘really happened’ and instead I tried to find out what had happened to these entirely fictious women. The manuscript improved. When I left the story to the people (the imagined people) and not to the events, the manuscript did improve. But I still didn’t have a story. All I really had was a string of chapters that had no real purpose other than to pass the time between one chapter and the next.

At around this time, I was starting to send the mansucript out into the world. Competitions, manuscript assessments, masterclass applications that sort of thing. I was getting enough positive feedback that I knew the manuscript had legs, but because it never quite got over the line, I knew there was something wrong. At the same time, my enthusiasm was fading. Not only had I been working on the manuscript for a long time (on and off, but over a number of years), but I was also thinking about what I wanted to do now that my children were getting a bit older (that being a whole nother story, suffice to say, I didn’t feel that I could have a paid job, look after children – however much the mister and I shared it – and write, particularly in light of other family situations which were emerging).

I had to make a decision. Give this manuscript one final push or put it in the bottom drawer and move on. I looked again at the comments and suggestions people had made. This was actually quite a good thing to do, because a number of people had been very generous with their time and made good, constructive comments. And for some reason, this time, my brain actually registered the common theme of the feedback. There’s no story. What’s the point.

The penny dropped. I needed to learn to plot. I went back to all the books on how to write. I’ve got a lot of them. Two shelves full in fact. Carmel Bird, Kate Grenville, Dorothea Brande…and look at that, they’ve all got chapters on plotting. Why hadn’t I noticed them before? I knew the chapters on character and setting and dialogue by heart. And the ones on rewriting and editing and not doing the housework. But I hadn’t even noticed the chapters on plotting. They were undogeared, ununderlined, bereft of marginalia. Hmmm. Similarly, the chapters on conflict looked slightly unread.

Right. I would give it one more try. So, I read everything I could on plotting, and more than once, I ended up at this corner of the web. Hauge’s guide to screenplay structure. I copied it onto a small piece of paper and a large whiteboard. I used 14 point bold to write at the beginning of every chapter ‘what is the purpose of this chapter’. I wrote out rule four of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories “Every sentence must do one of two things ā€” reveal character or advance the action” and stuck it above my desk. I also gave Raymond Chandler’s ‘when the plot begins to flag bring in a man with the gun’ its own piece of paper and left it next to my computer (paraphrased, there’s about a zillion variations on the web and I’ve never read it in the original).

Then, using the back of one of Nick Xenophon’s election coreflutes (acquired from a stobie pole by my father, who, being a one-eyed ALP member could not abide the man), I used purple post-its to mark the structure, green post-its to mark particular chapters or scenes, and within a week, I had a plot. There was purpose. A story. A point.

There were still a good few drafts to go, and I had other things I also needed to learn. I still had a bit too much of the ‘show don’t tells’ going on. In fact, I think this is one of the plotting hindrances that I had. I wasn’t telling the reader anything. Not even what was happening. (Kurt Vonnegut again: Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.). But I was on my way.

And that is why, not last week, but the week before, when I felt a familiar stirring of dissatisfaction, when I had got to the end of another long day of sitting in front of my computer doing nothing much, when I looked at my new manuscript of quite a lot of words but no particular point, I smoothed out some of the butcher’s paper that I had asked the removalists to leave behind (ten boxes we sent, six of them books). I raided the boys’ texta draw. Red for structure, green for happenings, blue for purpose and desire. And I reckon I just saved myself about two years.

The End


PS I took my glasses off to take this picture, but there’s still some chance that it’s not blurry to you. If you can read it, don’t steal it, will you? It’s taken me a lot of work to reach this point.

PPS and updated to add: it occurred to me as I was pulling the pumpkin out of the oven that this problem with plotting is probably what has stopped me from being able to write for children – which I have tried many, many times to do. In fact, a children’s writer is what I have always felt I was. Deep in my bones, it is how I have always seen myself. Interesting to me, though probably not of great interest to you.


34 Responses to “On plotting”

  1. franzy February 21, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    Beautiful and painful. But mostly beautiful.

    It reminds me of how I was doing the the vacuuming today and the screen-writer character from ‘Adaptation’ was telling Kaufman “… and God help you if you bring in some Deus Ex Machina to advance the plot!” (himself being just such a device within the plot).

  2. ThirdCat February 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm #

    Yes, well, I’m sure I will overdo it now and go to the other extreme and bring in any number of Deus ex Machina and be so well and truly plotted that people will say ‘oh my god, just slow down’ and then my manuscript will become moribund by some other technical difficulty that I fail to get my head around until it’s almost too late. I really do envy trailblazer writers who can break rules and conventions andstill look good.

  3. blackbird February 21, 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    The strength it has taken you to get this far amazes me. Strength and skill – and it’s not like you’ve had an easy time of late, in my opinion.

  4. ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 1:15 am #

    That’s very nice of you to say, blackbird. I hadn’t really thought about it as strength – actually, I was thinking that I’ve been a bit dim. And oddly (for me) determined.

  5. charlotteotter February 22, 2009 at 1:20 am #

    You have no idea how much this post speaks to me, right now! I am at the end of my unplotted first draft – lots of writing, thousands of words – and have realised that before I start the second draft I will have to go through a serious plotting exercise. Thanks for sharing your method.

  6. kate February 22, 2009 at 1:25 am #

    God it’s frustrating when you set out to do something (that you’ve reason to believe you’re good at) and it turns out there’s a whole lotta hard work involved and pure talent isn’t enough. It gets me every single time.

    Sticking at it, when you know it’s not quite there, and you’re not sure why, is definitely strength. So much easier to declare yourself hopeless and get a real job. Or a haircut. Definitely easier to get a haircut than finish a manuscript.


    Should I look at the photo with my glasses off?

  7. ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 1:42 am #

    charlotteotter – I hope it helps – there’s heaps of other plotting methods, but this one worked really well for me

    There were plenty of haircuts, Kate. Plenty. Also, yes, hard work. It’s a bitch. Witness me avoiding it for around thirty five years.

  8. Pen February 22, 2009 at 1:52 am #

    I was very interested to find that you have the bones of a children’s writer. Thanks for your narrative of plotting and suffering and now etceterarrrrgh is my favourite word. My characters never want to do anything. I am lazy myself, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t be. We have a nice, non-narrative coexistence as a result. One of them worries, though.

  9. ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 2:02 am #

    Thank you, Pen – I must admit, I was a little bit pleased with the word as it came out.

    And I will do anything to avoid conflict, and so did my characters and that too is an iss-ewe in storytelling.

  10. elsewhere February 22, 2009 at 6:21 am #

    Thanks, that was a great post. Sorry, am speechless at the moment — nothing intelligent to say, but thanks for sharing.

  11. ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 8:10 am #

    You’re welcome.

  12. suse February 22, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Yeah me too. I’m kind of in awe of you right now. Which is nothing new; I’ve been awed by your writing skills for several years now.

    Oh, and I always believed it to be learnt if you’re British or Australian and learned if you’re American. (As opposed to learn-ed with that grave accent that pav once taught me to do and which I have forgotten).

    Anyway Pav or Stephanie will correct me I’m sure.

  13. ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 10:10 am #

    This is very weird…as I was writing this, I started to wonder whether I should post it or keep it to myself, because really it shows what a plodder I am and just how long it can take me to learn things which so many other people seem to know instinctively.

    • ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 10:45 am #

      Just testing my fancy new comment threading feature.

  14. penguinunearthed February 22, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    I found this post fascinating – as a reader, it really helped me understand much more about why I like the books I do – I think I’m a slave for plot.

    But I’m mostly in awe of the tenacity needed to get to where you are.

  15. Zoe February 22, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    I’m just busting to get my paws on a copy and piss the kids off and read it.

    Everyone I know’s getting it for their Christmas present too šŸ˜‰

  16. ThirdCat February 22, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    penguinunearthed, that’s an interesting observation – I was thinking about it while I was walking to school this afternoon, and of course, it made me realise that the stories I’ve loved the most have been fairly character-driven, and it’s characters who stay with me rather than the things that happened to them. I think I already knew that, but I have never articulated it to myself.

    Zoe, I think that’s maybe why I’m writing all this now. Once it’s out, there will be silence on this blog, because then I’m going to be all, ‘oh, fuck, now it’s out, what if people don’t like it’.

  17. Stomper Girl February 23, 2009 at 5:39 am #

    I would not be at all surprised if other aspiring authors end up on this post in their quest for self-improvement! I enjoyed reading this so much.

  18. Pavlov's Cat February 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    ‘Anyway Pav or Stephanie will correct me Iā€™m sure.’

    Not me. Partly because I have no idea myself. Instinct says take your pick.

    Suse: Option + E (together), then vowel of choice.

    I got my flyer (flier?) from the Wakefield Press today, showing their New Releases for March 2009. Heh.

    • ThirdCat February 23, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

      I’m going to be very quiet from now on, because that has made me feel a bit nervous. People might read it. Careful what you wish for and all that.

      Flyer looks better than flier if that means anything.

  19. genevieve February 23, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    Any day now, any way now, you shall be released.
    Fascinating account, TC.

    • ThirdCat February 23, 2009 at 4:50 pm #

      drats – meant to put the reply that is attached to PC’s comment here, because it was a reply to both comments…not doing so well with this threading feature

  20. ampersand duck February 24, 2009 at 1:59 am #

    Gobsmacked at the poetic usefulness of this post.

    Watch out for the slow tsunami of praise, I’m sure.

  21. fifi February 24, 2009 at 3:27 am #

    you’re awesome.

  22. westword February 24, 2009 at 3:51 am #

    I’d love to use this blog post with my creative writing students–fully accredited, of course. Would that be OK?

  23. Nick Crumbedprawn February 24, 2009 at 10:21 am #

    Jeez, useful, inspirational, awesome post.

    Congratulations on getting a novel out. Incredible! (Well, not *incredible* exactly as in unbeleivable. Fantastic and wonderful).

    I plot like a fiend, multiple novels at once but then leave large savage holes in my plots so as to make actual writing tricky.

    Let me know then the book is out and will buy a copy. Or three.


  24. Eleanor February 24, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    I’m here in your commentbox via Fifi and Ampersand, or maybe Suse…can’t quite remember. Just wanted to say how interesting this post is, and how happy I am to hear of your success.

    Michael Hauge gave a workshop in Sydney last year which I attended and LOVED. When I saw your link to his website I clapped my hands with glee. I am studying screenwriting at the moment and have also found Robert McKee’s book “Story” to be very helpful.

    Thanks for a great post, and may your writing go from strength to strength.

  25. kim at allconsuming February 24, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    This is awesome. And inspiring. I may get to my own writing through this…

  26. Cristy February 25, 2009 at 5:54 am #

    Oooh, how exciting! I am scheduling a book reading break to the rest of my life in March.


    On a complete side note – I am so glad that I came to this post through Pav’s blog. Somehow I must have loaded your new blog incorrectly into bloglines and I have been annoyed for ages now that you haven’t been posting…

  27. redcap February 25, 2009 at 10:18 am #

    I just realised that I knew absolutely nothing about writing! Time to do some more reading, perhaps…

  28. Helen March 1, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    My favourite bookshop did not know about it yet. Pah! Now it’s on order.

    I just know everyone else will have read it by the time I’m starting. Plz to not write the spoilerz, ppl.

  29. Ariel March 2, 2009 at 4:11 pm #

    What a fantastic post. Plenty of food for thought, yes. Thanks for sharing your methods/development as a writer. I know I need to develop more conscious thought around what I do, rather than just banging it out and relying on instinct.

    And as for the book … I’ve read it, and it’s great! (Lucky me.) Buy it everyone! With a suitably gripping plot, though I did enjoy the characterisation and telling details the most.

    Good luck with its release into the world, TC!

  30. LiteraryMinded March 5, 2009 at 4:59 am #

    Just came across this post via Kerryn Goldsworthy. Great stuff šŸ™‚

  31. Caroline March 19, 2009 at 3:40 am #


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