I think we all have a romantic notion of the author springing from his bed, crying “Eureka!” and scribbling furiously some wonderful new idea that has just been beamed into his head like an alien. I like this idea. I like to exploit this idea. I carry around a Moleksine notebook. Who doesn’t, these days?
Lately, though, I’ve been asking myself another question: does it really matter?
Nothing is more frustrating to me than having a great idea you can’t execute. You just can’t get right. Maybe you’re on draft fifty of the first fifty pages. Or you’ve bogged down somewhere in the middle and can’t seem to get out of the midgemarshes. Or you’ve gotten through a full draft and won’t let anyone read it. You’re in the trenches. I’m in the trenches. It’s miserable in the trenches.
And I think I’ve found a way out.
If you’ve got a great idea–and I know you do–I don’t think you need talent. I don’t think you need voice. I don’t think you need experience. I don’t think you need characters.
I think you need a plot.
This sounds a bit crazy. Of course, a great plot does help make a book great, but it’s all about the characters, right? Wrong. Well, not wrong. It is about the characters. And the voice. And the world. And that one monologue at the end where you just kill it. It’s about the little moments that lead to the big moments. It’s about the perfect metaphor. A great book is great on many levels, and a great writer will weave all these elements–voice, character, pacing, world–together.
But none of this matters if you don’t have a plot (and you’re not Jack Kerouac).
I was a consummate pantser and have been forever converted to a plotter. Plotting your novel–even loosely–saves you heartache, angst and time. Here’s why:
1) No One Else Cares That Writing is Hard
The western cultural perception of art has drastically changed in the last few hundred years. In ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe and early America, artists were not considered special. Art, music and writing was a job. People went to school to study it the way people go to school to study medicine now. There were rules that had to be followed. And most artists worked for a wealthy patron, and they had to meet deadlines and write to the explicit taste of their patron.
Consider Beethoven. Brilliant. Famous. Unfortunately, going deaf. Much of what we know of him–his brooding personality, his aloofness–was part of a carefully cultivated persona intended to keep people from knowing he was going deaf in order to keep working.
Consider Handel. A composer. The name of the game was opera, but it was Lent and you can’t perform operas during Lent. Handel still needed money. Thus, we get The Messiah.
Deflated yet? What about Hemingway? We all like to think of him drinking it up with ex-pats in Paris. We all know he did his fair share of drinking. He also did his fair share of journalism, in order to pay the bills.
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Stephen King. “Talent,” he said, “Is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
We can’t wait for inspiration, or for the elements of a story to simply come together. We have to work at it.
2) A Plot is a Necessary Evil
Don’t get me wrong — I love writing. It’s a joyful kind of work, even when it’s difficult. But it is still work. And just like you sit for a yearly review at the office, writers ought to review the way they write — and what might not be working.
I’ve been a lifelong pantser. I’ll start with a vague idea of a beginning and a vague idea of an ending, then just go. This is how I wrote my first book. I was fourteen. I considered Christopher Paolini my personal nemesis. And I would defeat him by being the youngest fantasy writer there ever was. I had an idea, and I ran with it, let the characters take me where they would. Two years later, I had a 300,000 word middle grade fantasy adventure.
Yes. You read that right. My fantasy novel for twelve-year-olds was the length of Game of Thrones.
And its story ends the same way — carnage. Rejection upon rejection upon humiliation that my nemesis was now on the New York Times bestseller list with a movie deal and I was sitting at home in Texas with seven hundred fifty pages of scrap paper.
The next time around, I tried an outline. I ended up with a tighter, leaner story that hit all the right points and meant nothing. I felt like I was performing CPR on it, just thumping against the paper to force it to have a heartbeat. But it didn’t. And I thought it never would. And I would never plot again. I put that manuscript, along with the first one (now cut into two books) in the drawer. 1,000 pages of proof that I was doing something wrong.
I just didn’t know what.
3) There is Another Way
I would like to try to think of some ridiculous celebrity-couple name-mashing of Plotter and Pantser, and here’s what I came up with — planter. It’s a combination of plotting and pantsing that gives a writer structure without taking the story’s heart.
Consider this, from Mr. George R.R. Martin:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”
But it’s not as if the man didn’t plan at all. George RR Martin worked in films for years as a script doctor. He understands the necessity of structure. And it’s evident in his books which are almost perfectly paced, and yet never lose the heart of the story–the characters. In fact, it is only by way of his perfect plot that his characters are able to shine–and die–with such grandeur.
All you need to be a planter is an outline. Not a set-in-stone-puppies-will-die-if-you-deviate-from-it outline. Just an outline. A plan that encompasses more than “This is how the book will begin” or “this is who will die.” A plan that charts your book from beginning to end and sets it against a broader structure.
In my next article, I’m going to go over several different outlining methods, with examples from a few of the great writers. No writer is the same, but you might find something that works for you.
Bess Cozby writes epic stories in expansive worlds from her tiny apartment in New York City. By day, she’s an Editor at Tor Books, and Web Editor for DIY MFA. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency. Tweet her at @besscozby, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website at www.besscozby.com.