Monday, 13 December 2010

PLOTTING A TRILOGY

You guys may have noticed that out of all the parts of a writer's process I could talk about, plotting is the one that comes up most often on this blog. Please don't run away with the idea that this is because I'm a plotting expert. I'm...seriously not. Plotting and pacing are the things I struggle with most and enjoy the least.

Characterisation? Comes pretty naturally, once I let my characters into my head. Style? I LOVE the English language, and I love playing with words and trying to create beautiful and startling images. But plot? God, just tie me into a hessian bag, wrap it in chains and throw it in a river. It'll be less painful and a heck of a lot less helpless feeling.

I've heard many other authors say that they love the planning stage of writing, when literally anything can happen, and they can play around with events, change anything they want, and not have to worry about it. I'm not sure what weird mojo goes on in those writer's heads, but it is entirely foreign to me, because frankly, when I first start trying to figure out what happens to who in a book and why and in what order, it feels as if I'm struggling around waist deep in a soup full of unexpected sharp/hard objects that keep hitting me and knocking me over. Blind folded.

That's why I'm always coming up with different ways to try and make plotting easier for myself (and you!). I've showed you my bullet-pointed lists and my diamond-diagrams before. Those serve me pretty well in a general way. But when I came to try and write the synopses for The Big Secret Project, which is a trilogy, I found that they just weren't helping me. I had so many more events to keep track of. I needed to be able to see not just the plot and character arcs for one book, but for three, and the over-arcing plot that would join all three stories together.

And so... I went out to my local stationary shop and grabbed some supplies. I decided I need a massive pad of paper so that I could see all my plots working against each other at the same time. Post-it notes also seemed like a good idea because that way I could try to imitate those 'I Love Planning' authors and move my events around easily. I needed a ruler to draw columns.


The coloured pens and star stickers were just for fun.

The first thing I did was to try and figure out what all the hard/sharp objects bumping into me in the soup were. I mean, maybe not all of them would be useful, but I wanted them out of the soup and on the page. So, I decided to brainstorm. I don't normally find brainstorming particularly helpful because it just makes me more confused (shut up, I can't HELP the way my brain IS, okay?) but in this case I assigned each book a colour and then randomly wrote down all the ideas I had for each one.


In some places I instantly realised that certain ideas fitted together better than others, and if they were marked the wrong colour, I put an asterisk in the right colour next to them. In other places I had cool ideas that didn't really seem anchored to the plot I had in mind and those got a star sticker. Looking at everyone all at once like that might seem like it would be overwhelming, but actually once it was on the paper it felt much more organised than it had in my head (not hard, really).

The second thing I did was to divide one page into three parts and start putting Post-its in lines so that I could see the stories for each book working parallel to one another. You will notice, by the way, in these pictures, that I have deliberately blurred out a lot of the words and the titles. This is because I know that certain readers, naming no names (*cough*Saya*cough*) would have no hesitation in zooming in and trying to make out details of The Big Secret Project. And since it's Secret, and all subject to change anyway, I just can't have that. Sorry! But I hope you can still see what I was aiming for.


Then I decided to break down the most important part of the story, which is the heroine's emotional arc, and how she changes throughout both books, what issues she has to start with, and when and how these are resolved.


With all this firmly pinned down I broke out the Microsoft OneNote programme, which I find particularly useful because it lets you scribble randomly all over the place, but keeps everything neat for you. I came up with this:



Which (one of the nice features of OneNote) includes links to useful webpages where I can go back and check my facts.

Having done all this, I now have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to who, when and how. So I'm going to ask a question of my lovely blog readers, and your answer might influence the way this story is written.

My heroine needs to have a best friend. I know who this person is inside, but what I haven't decided yet is their outter trappings - ie, their gender and sexuality. It's always been really important for me to try and include characters of different cultures, races and faiths in my work, but recently I've also been attempting to include characters who do not fit into the Western World's narrow definition of heteronormative behavior. So help me out. What would make you happy? Do you think my heroine's best friend should be a gay GUY, or a gay GIRL? Either way they are extremely fierce, smart and protective, are a little bit Goth, and end up having an extremely complex love life throughout these books.

Tell me what you think in the comments!

39 comments:

Alex Mullarky said...

I think a gay girl best friend would be a really interesting character. Those traits don't normally appear in combination (i.e. gay, girl, best friend).
I feel exactly the same as you about plotting. I can imagine it would be difficult if you had to present a synopsis before actually having written the books, because they always take a different turn when you're writing - for me at least (:

Zoë Marriott said...

Vote counted! I remember Malinda Lo saying that gay girls are seriously under-represented in YA, and most 'gay best friends' do seem to be boys. So that's something to think about.

Argh, yes. Things nearly always change substantially as I write. Normally this is fine because I can always go back to the beginning of the book and change it to match (and so long as the change makes the book better, editors don't tend to mind). But you can't go back and change a book that's already been typeset, or one that's already on the shelf. You can't abandon characters or plot threads that you decide don't work when you get to book three. You have to carry it all through and give the reader the pay-off they were promised in the first book. How terrifying!

Nattasha said...

I think a gay girl best friend would be very interesting and far more controversial especially now that some writers like Alyson Noel and PC Cast are adding gay guy best friends. I don't know how you can plot your stories it amazes me I just can't seem to at all especially during my exams when your asked to write a story and show your planning my mind just goes completely blank. Although I think it's the pressure of being asked to write something instead of it just coming to me.

Zoë Marriott said...

Two votes for a girl!

They ask you to SHOW YOUR PLANNING? For ENGLISH? You poor girl, I had no idea! I mean, good grief, what's the fun of that? It's like they're trying to turn creative writing into maths or something. Thank God they never did that to me or I would have failed my English exams miserably. I only learned how to write synopses after I left college. Good luck to you!

Nattasha said...

Aww thank you Zoe.

astres said...

Please please please a gay girl!!

Zoë Marriott said...

Three votes! So far opinions seem to point overwhelmingly to a gay girl best friend, so it looks like you'll get your wish, Astres. I think you might like the book I just finished, FrostFire, too. But I won't say anymore about that right now...

Isabel said...

Aah, Nattasha, I feel EXACTLY the same way! At school we usually have to show our brainstorming and planning and I completely don't know what to do! My planning consists mainly of a sheet full of aimless scribblings, consisting of many grrs and "GAAH THIS IS NEEEVER GONNA WORK OUT!!!!!"s and "Uggh this stinks! The worst idea EVER! Who invented writing anyway!"s.

I'm glad you feel the same about brainstorming, Zoe! I never really got how it's supposed to help organize your thoughts. The notebook method works for me when I'm writing a story, but somehow for school essays I'm better off just getting out the computer and starting to type. My organization sheet usually just sits neglected on my desk as I type away furiously, achieving something very different (and a lot better!) than what I planned.

Hmm. Well, I think having a gay character in your story is an excellent idea. Actually, in THE EXILED QUEEN, the sequel to THE DEMON KING, by Cinda Williams Chima, one of the main character's friends (a girl) was gay, and I loved that the author did that. It's obviously *easier* to write a story (*especially* fantasy) that includes only straight, light-skinned people, because some people are prejudice and don't want to read about that kind of stuff. Anyway, I'm kind of torn between guy and girl. A part of me leans towards the girl, another part toward the guy. I think if it was me it would be a girl, but I haven't fully decided yet. I'll have to think it through a bit. Right now I don't really think I can give any good suggestions on that point.

I'm so excited about your new project, Zoe! Plotting is also not my strength, so we're all helping each other out on that point! I can't wait to see this story grow and progress!

Isabel said...

Actually, reading through the rest of the comments and thinking it through a bit more, I think I've settled with girl. It's true that we've seen more of gay guy friends in other stories than girls, and personally I'd enjoy reading about a girl. It seems you've already decided on girl, and I agree entirely!

Zoë Marriott said...

It seems like you're leaning towards a girl too, Isabel. This is going to be easier than I thought.

Hmmm, yes, trying to brainstorm this was really kind of a last resort for me. I think it worked because I wasn't using it as a tool to try and generate ideas. I just wanted to write everything that was already in my head on a piece of paper so that none of it could escape and I could start to see the ways things would work together. And I didn't bother connecting anything with lines or bubbles either. Come to think of it, does that even COUNT as brainstorming? Hmmm.

Zoë Marriott said...

Carried unanimously! And as a reward, I might tell you all a bit about this character on Wednesday, if nothing else comes up that needs to be posted about before then.

Isabel said...

Ah, lines and bubbles. I never could seem to work with them...
Yes, I'm glad that the brainstorming worked out for you. Again, I'm very excited about this new project. :)

Ammy Belle said...

This is wonderful! It is so nice to know I am not the only one who is spastic like this! :D I applaud you, comrad! :D

And much luck with the plotting! :D

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks Ammy Belle. The slightly wacky ones definitely need to stick together. Could you not use the word 'spastic' like that, though? Probably you're not really aware of what it means, but I am, and it makes me sad.

Elise said...

Haha! I share y'all's views on brainstorming! I never understood how I was expected to write in bubbles. (I mean, we write in straight lines and bubbles are round! How, exactly, is this meant to work?) But your approach, Zoë, looks much more potentially productive than many that have been forced upon me by well meaning teachers. I'll have to try something like it. (and I agree, a girl sounds much more interesting)

Zoë Marriott said...

Elise, I still cannot get over the fact that you're supposed to 'show your working' in English, as if it was maths or something. Don't these teachers understand that this isn't how telling stories *works*? Argh, it's so wrong.

Anyway, thanks for your vote!

Jan von Harz said...

Personally, I vote for the gay guy. I think he would be much more loyal and fiercely protective, not to mention a lot more fun. Most of the gay guys I have known make much better besties to straight gals. They are able to be playful and not take themselves too serious. I realize I am in the minority, but you asked.

Zoë Marriott said...

I did ask, and thank you for your vote, Jan.

meghaz said...

I'd prefer a girl.

Anyway, I DID try and zoom in. A LOT. Curse you, small handwriting!

Zoë Marriott said...

Ha ha, Meghaz - sorry if you gave yourself a headache squinting, but I DID warn you. Vote counted.

I'mDifferentButMe said...

I know loads of people have said girl, but I'd go with guy myself. If it's in the past era and stuff, it could give you a lot more advantages and help along with the story a bit.
But that's just my opinion- your choice.

meghaz said...

It's okay, Zoe. Although you warned AFTER ONE PICTURE. Do you have any idea what you made me go through?!

Zoë Marriott said...

I'mDifferent: Well, actually the book is set in contemporary times, but thanks for your vote anyway.

Meghaz: Sorry! I'll warn you earlier next time.

Isabel said...

Zoe: I finished the story "Little Dot" by Diana Wynne Jones yesterday. Possibly my favorite so far! Hilarious and cute, I loved how it was in the perspective of a cat, and I adored all of the cats' personalities. And the way the cat referred to Henry as "my" human, instead of her owner. From the first sentence, I knew it was going to be an eccentric story. My favorite character? *Definitely* Great Aunt Harriet. I realize that it is taking me somewhat of a while to finish FIREBIRDS, but I admit that reading an anthology from start to finish can be a bit tiring sometimes. I'm not good with beginnings, whether I'm writing them or reading them, and you *do* have to begin a totally new story every twenty pages or so. But I am enjoying this anthology thoroughly. I'm finding out so many amazing authors by reading this. :)

Nara said...

A girl, I think. It would be very interesting. I don't think I've come across a book with a gay girl before...

I know this is completely unrelated, but what is the music you have on the Shadows on the Moon book trailer? It's very nice, whatever it is. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Diana Wynne Jones is one of my all-time favourite authors. I love her! If you want recommendations for more books by her, let me know!

Nara: Thank you for your vote. The first Shadows trailer uses a piece of traditional Japanese music called 'Sakura'. The second one (the one with the snow and butterfly explosion effects) uses the ending title from the soundtrack of a film called 'The Curse of the Golden Flower'. The song was composed by Shigeru Umebayashi.

Emma said...

I'm really hoping this comment works as I haven't been able to comment for months but technology may like me better today!

I am SO amazingly excited about all your upcoming works, I've been rereading DotF and realise that it's one of those books where you get something new out of it every time you read it!

I love your idea of a different colour for plot events of each book. I've been struggling to put together the plot of a quartet and I can't wait to try this method so Thank you!!!

I'm really excited that you're writing a trilogy; I have a really random question. Do you find it difficult to make sure that the first and second books round feel complete and round up their own plots and still leave things open? Because that's a major block that I've hit with the first of my series - the ending just seems so inconclusive!

I'm really hoping this works now!

P.S. My vote goes for girl too!

Emma said...

YES! It took 3 tries bit YES!

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh, Emma - I feel for you! It's really frustrating when you want to comment and the stupid computer won't let you. Thanks for saying nice things about DotF too.

I think your question there is quite interesting actually. I've got a reader email that I need to answer so, with your permission, I'll do a Reader Question post on Friday and answer your question and theirs at the same time?

Emma said...

That would be fantastic, thank you :-) xxx

Isabel said...

Oh, Zoë, I'd *love* some suggestions as to what to look for by Diana Wynne Jones! I didn't know you loved her so much! Is she from the UK?
(Hurrah! Notice how I FINALLY managed to put the two dot things over the e in "Zoë"! YAY!)

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, I'll put that in Friday's post too, how about that? Now I don't have to wrack my brains coming up with stuff to say!

a.u. said...

Gay girl, definitely! There are WAAAYYY too few gay girl main characters. I always wondered what they thought...

And yes, sadly, they make us show our planning for English. :( :( Once we had a whole 45 minutes devoted to planning!!! Agghh!! Torture!

Zoë Marriott said...

No worries - she's definitely a gay girl now. My commiserations on the funky way that English is taught nowadays. I can't get my head around it at all.

a.u. said...

Good! Thanks! :)

Does anyone else out there have to or had to write "stickies?"

LiasCrowe said...

You should see my novel plot. It looks like a bank heist plan.. I vote for a gay girl. You should check out Michael Grant's GONE series. THere is a lesbian in that and she is a great character!

Zoë Marriott said...

The votes for a gay female character won by a landslide - she's already written in! And she's fantastic.

borky_qk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shaun said...

I'd love to write a duology or trilogy but my problem is finding what kind of story to tell in each and I can't seem to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) until I have an idea of what each story may be. I have the world set. The rules. And a couple characters. But the actual story I am unsure of. How did you go about coming up with each individual story? Just brainstorming? It's really frustrating.

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