How do you develop your stories?  Do you plot in advance, complete with outlines and maybe index cards, or do you drive the book by the seat of your pants, letting the characters sort of lead you around by the nose?

I'm in the latter category.  I have no idea in the world how a book will turn out, or where it will take me during the process.  I started my current one with nothing but an image: a six-foot, feather-winged angel walking down a crowded street in a Bangkok slum.  I'm now almost 90 pages in, and I still don't know exactly who he is, but I'm having a wonderful time.

I'd love to hear from you, and also to suggest (if the subject interests you) that you look at my blog at, where some really good writers are addressing the question.  So far we've had Stephen Jay Schwartz, Bill Crider, Rebecca Cantrell, and Gar Anthony Haywood.  Up right now is Helen Simonson, whose first novel, COLONEL PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND has had amazing reviews by everyone from Oprah to Publisher's Weekly and the NY Times, and which entered the Amazon rankings, two weeks before its pub date, at 126.

I'd love it if you dropped by and took a look at the way these folks do it, but I'd also love some replies here.  This is a topic I can read about and discuss pretty much any time.

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Thanks for the plug, Dana -- I think the guest pieces are fascinating, too, and so are some of the responses to them.

What I want to know -- from you and from all plotters -- is how does the plot actually come to you when you're outlining it/laying it out? Mine arises mostly from stuff I didn't know I was going to write in the first place: a character will say or do something and I'll think, "Hmmmmmmm," and follow it and a new chunk of the book will unspool. But I don't know where anything is going until I'm actually writing.

I'd love to learn to outline. It could only improve the end product.
It's an amorphous process. I wish i could describe it better.

The main points get decided on pretty easily: the beginning state, and a reasonable resolution. It's how to get there that's hard. I get that in mind, and start writing things on index cards. As characters come to mind, I run possible plot points through them in both directions: if this is to happen, how would it be initiated? Would Colonel Mustard do this? Would Miss Peacock do that? How would Professor Plum (the bastard) respond to this? What would Miss Scarlet do in this situation?

This gets worked on until I have the main points of all the subplots worked out. Then I arrange the index cards to determine the order of events relative to each other, to ensure it's not too long between references to different characters and subplots. With each layer a character may get added, or two may get combined, or a new direction may emerge. The ending frequently changes at least once. (Writing in first person isn't nearly so convoluted, as events have to be described as the hero finds them, and no one else's POV has to be considered.) This also helps with pacing, as I can see where things might drag, or become hectic, and re-organize, cut, or add as necessary.

My spontaneity comes in the writing of the scenes. Once the scenes have been developed using the above "method," they're reduced to a couple of sentences, so when I actually sit down to write it I can handle it however I want.

Looking at it, that seems awfully convoluted, but it's a lot easier for me to change direction by editing or tearing up a 4x6 card than to throw away 15,000 words. Lets me sleep at night.
I want to be a plotter, but I'm not patient enough to pull it off. I'm in too much of a hurry to get my characters into trouble (and eating and having sex and telling each other jokes), so I'm always writing them into corners and making them find their way out. It's stressful, but it's a lot more fun. A couple of on-line reviewers have complained that my plots don't make sense, to which I would reply, "duh."
You've mentioned before that reviewers have said your plots don't make sense. I read HIGH SEASON and thought the plot made perfect sense. It wasn't as linear as some stories, so sometimes the next development had to wait until after the characters had eaten, had, sex, and told some jokes, but I never had trouble figuring out what was going on, or how things added up.

My wife asked me how the book was going when I was reading it, and I said "Think Carl Hiaasen in New England." (I'm a huge Hiaasen fan, so that's a compliment.) Online reviewers can be boneheads. (Hmm, I'm an online reviewer...)
I'm with you, Jon -- impatience is definitely part of it. For me, outlining isn't fun but writing is. If I'm going to be sitting all alone for months on end, hunched over a keyboard, I might as well be having fun.

Outliners: Is outlining fun?
Being a retired engineer, I'm a plotter. I spend about 3 months before I start writing the first draft doing the following: creating a scene-by-scene outline, doing character profiles, conducting research on settings and activities that will appear in the book.
Beth, please look at my last couple of replies and tell me how story comes to you as you outline. What triggers plot developments 4,5, and 6, for example? Is the outlining process as much fun as the writing process (or are they the same process?)?

And how bound to you feel to follow the outline? When I write a book on which I've submitted a proposal, the "outline," such as it was, that I had to do to get the money in the first place is always with me. It's like a hopscotch pattern chalked on a sidewalk, mostly scuffed away, but still sort of compelling -- you want to follow it and you're aware when you step out of it. Drives me CRAZY.
To me, the really creative part is the outlining, because I'm developing the plot and character arcs then, building the architecture of the story. Usually I start with three scenes: the body on the floor in the beginning, the climax at the end and some big event to hold up the sagging middle. I don't start outlining until those 3 scenes have come to me. Then I tie them together, add subplots, start listing suspects and clues and work in visits with them, etc. I usually have about 40 scenes in a book, and I start writing the rough draft when I've defined about 32-35 scenes. So, there's room for new scenes to appear, and scenes will change or I may delete one as I go along. I stick pretty much to the general structure, though.

When I'm actually writing the first draft, I try to get in the "zone" where I'm just a secretary transcribing the conversations and actions of my characters once I put them in a situation together.
Beth's method of writing just goes to show you--as a writer you'd better find the method that best fits you. I thoroughly enjoy the way I write. Beth and Dana (plotters) enjoy the way they write. Groovy. It's an experimental thing--you gotta try a lot of methods before you find the one that fit's you.
I confess to a love for the latter, but an almost demented need for the former. I began writing by flying and it was a lot of fun that way, but I sold not one book. It wasn't until I began tightly plotting beforehand with synopses sometimes running 100 pages, that I began to attract publishers and readers. I guess you could call such a lengthy synopsis your first draft; whatever, I find that I work better day to day, and with less stress, if I have the big picture in mind each morning when I sit down to work. Then I am free to have all sorts of unexpected developments within each scene--but at least I knew where I thought I was going.
"I find that I work better day to day, and with less stress, if I have the big picture in mind each morning when I sit down to work. Then I am free to have all sorts of unexpected developments within each scene--but at least I knew where I thought I was going."

Exactly. I'd prefer to be a pantser, but I can't do it.
A 100-page SYNOPSIS???? You're in a class by yourself (or maybe not).

Actually, writing at that length is almost like writing the book. That's how I've learned to handle book proposals: I just sit down and write the book, or at least the first third of it, dialogue and all, getting out of scenes when I know where they're going and then boiling that down to a few sentences and moving on. It lets me get a better taste of my characters and also lets me give the publisher a better sense of the feel of the book: prose style, dialogue, tone, setting, etc.

And then, when I have all the plot lines going, I do some cloud language about how all these threads will converge unexpectedly, cranking up the stakes, and how my hero will come through it, shaken and changed or some bushwa like that. The pubs either say yes or no on the basis (I think) of how much they want to read the rest of the story.

Then, when they buy the book, I never look at the proposal again.


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