Charting Fates

Have you seen JK Rowlings plot chart for the Harry Potter series? It’s incredible. A great visual of just how many plot lines she managed to interweave without crashing.

Tolkien had a similar plot chart for Lord of the Rings. I saw it in person at the EMP last year, and I wanted to squeal in sheer delight. It was amazing! He had exact dates on each event for each person and each plot line, painstakingly hand-written on a sheet of paper. Beautiful.

I went home that day inspired. I was going to plot like Tolkien. I was going to make a chart, and write out all the minute details, and it was going to be perfect.

Except that, instead of the train-schedule precision of Tolkien, my chart turned into a total train wreck.

I finally gave up on the chart and reverted to my usual method of plotting: a loose outline, mostly chronological, of the big turning point events. I had tried the chart, but it just didn’t work for me, so I shelved it.

Except that then, I got halfway through my novel and realized that I was spending as much time hunting through previous chapters, trying to figure out time frames and event sequences, as I was actually writing. It was incredibly frustrating, and I found myself wishing with all my heart that I had managed to get that stupid chart to work.

And then I realized: it was not too late for the chart.

I had been so caught up on the chart as an initial planning method that I wasn’t thinking about how useful it was as an editing help. And so, after this moment of clarity, I approached the chart once more with some trepidation born of my previous failure.

And guess what? It was a lot easier to make a chart out of something I had already written than something I was just beginning to plan out. After a couple hours’ work, I had mapped out my written chapters in a clean, crisp OneNote table. With the plot laid out in front of me at a glance, I dashed through the last half of the book at double speed, no longer slowed down by constant checking and rechecking of dates and times and sequences. Not only that, I realized that there was a point in my book where I had crammed about three days’ worth of hours into one day. Kind of an important thing to know going into editing mode.

The perfect method of planning a novel is an elusive beast. I’ve never written two novels the same way, because I’m always figuring out some new way to improve my process. But I can tell you for sure, this post-draft plot chart is here to stay in my plotting method.

Do you use a chart in your planning? How do you keep all your plot lines straight in your head?

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You’re not supposed to be self-willed!

Do you ever feel like you just completely lose control of your characters, and they go off and do whatever the heck they want? Sometimes this has turned out to be a good thing for me; one of the main subplots in my book came from a rather lowly character who suddenly decided to develop a personality.

But the last couple of chapters I’ve been writing have been like reining in a team of wild horses. I know exactly where these two characters need to get at the end of the chapter, but they keep getting sidetracked, or other characters jump in with problems to be raised, developed, and solved, and I sit and stare as my flawlessly planned storyline goes floating away down the river. Who knew that completely fictional characters could be so maddeningly self-motivated?

Anyone else have this problem? Or am I just a little crazy?

Popcorn Popping

I have a folder on my computer stuffed with completely random scenes, unconnected to any of the novels I’m working on. They’re just bits that come to me when I pass an interesting gate or watch people on the train or walk by ducks on the river, and I shove them into that folder to molder.

The other day, one of those scenes came poking out of the back of my mind and, without warning, exploded into an entire story. It was an entirely different direction than I had considered taking with that scene, but it was all there. I spent most of the day keeping baby entertained with one hand and scribbling madly in my notebook with the other. (All my actual writing is done on the computer, but colorful pens and grid paper are my preferred method of plotting.)

Most of my novels have started that way—a little kernel that pops into a big story, not perfectly smooth, but fairly substantial and wanting only some filling out.

How does your story come together? Do you start with character, events, places, or something else completely?