Tuesday, November 01, 2005

DR: Plotting the Plot

After thirty-one years of marriage, my husband and I recently bought our first house. The day we moved in, my mild-mannered (Clark) Ken peeled off his business shirt and tie to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with SG—Super Gardner.

As a couple, we’ve always epitomized the old “opposites attract” saw, but never did this become more apparent than when we signed on the dotted line for this little plot of earth with a fenced in back yard.

Here, step-by-step is my landscaping technique:
*Select random pots of pretty flowers from discount store.
*Three weeks later, find sunny spots in yard, dig holes and set plants in.
*Two weeks later, discover some plants need shade to thrive.
*Pull out scorched plants and buy more pretty flowers at discount store.
*Discover some plants just don’t look good in the spot I chose. Pull out and relocate.
*Repeat throughout planting season until all plants are thriving.
Ultimate outcome: Very pretty yard
Total cost: $665.89

Landscaping for Ken, however, began with careful survey of the yard, then transferring those dimensions to the computer to create a precise schematic of lawn and buildings, including position of sprinkler heads, distance of easements, and location of existing landscaping. Next Ken attended landscaping workshops, and studied the makeup of our particular soil and drainage. After a month and a half of preparation, he was finally ready to purchase a few plants, carefully chosen for their size, coloration, blooming season and compatibility with companion plantings.
Ultimate outcome: Very pretty yard
Total cost: $665.89

Typing my technique beside nice, tidy bullet points doesn’t hide the fact that it is haphazard at best. And I confess that I plot my novels the same way I would plot our garden—if my super hero would let me anywhere near it.

I write seat-of-the-pants, knowing only the most basic elements of the plot when I begin, and getting to know my characters as I go. Often I’ll discover midway through my novel that a secondary character is unnecessary and must be killed off. Or a plot point simply doesn’t work and I must toss four chapters and start over from there. A character will often take on a mind of his own and start doing things I never expected and can’t seem to control.

If Ken were a novelist, I have no doubt he would subscribe to
Randy Ingermanson's meticulous snowflake method of plotting, spending weeks on a synopsis and outline before one word of the story was ever written. I’m sure once he finally started putting words to paper, his story plot, like his garden plots, would unfold with amazing precision, never wasting so much as a paragraph.

For $665.89, Ken’s finished garden might have a few more plants than mine, since none of his would have shriveled in the sun. And his plantings might be established more quickly since no time is wasted moving things from one spot to another. If he were writing a novel, I’m sure his first draft would be finished long before mine.

But the point is, regardless of our different creative styles, when we finally type “the end,” whether the project involves a plot of earth or a story plot, I think we’d end up with a similar finished product for a comparable “cost.”

I used to lament the fact that I don’t enjoy surveying or schematics—whether they pertain to gardening or novels. I tried to learn to be more of a “plotter.” But I’ve finally accepted that my slapdash, seat-of-the-pants method—crazy as it may drive Super Gardener types—works quite well for me. I like the journey, discovering my story much the way my readers will.

I guess I’ll plot my books my way and leave the garden plots to my super hero.

Deborah Raney, author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters


At 10:17 AM, Blogger Domino said...

A wonderful comparison. Thanks!

We all have to put a lot of effort into anything we want to do well, whether in the dirt or on a keyboard.

My husband is my gardener. I try to keep my mouth closed about how his way is not my way. By not complaining, I have more time to write - and a happier husband.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for sharing this, Deb. It's a great reminder that no two writers are going to write the same way - and that's okay. Each person has to find what works for them. Sometimes I'll hear people say they have found "the way" to write and I always shy from that sort of advice. There isn't one way, is there? The key is finding bits and pieces of what works for others and implementing those elements into our own work.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Illuminating Fiction said...

Hmmm. You have me re-evaluating how I write, Deb.

First draft of my wip was sotp. I never got stuck, bogged down, or anything. Second draft (more like a complete new story) I started using a plotting method. To say my writing now crawls would be an exaggeration.

Two weekends ago I started a new project. I had a rough idea where it was headed, but no plan. I’m more enthused about finding time for writing now because I don’t know where I am going. It’s an adventure.

Perhaps I should give the plotting a break for a while and see where the good old sotp leads me.

Thanks for the thought fertilizer, Deb!

At 10:27 PM, Blogger Dan Edelen said...

For me, it all depends on the novel. One story demanded that I keep track of the timelines of a dozen characters who routinely crossed each other's paths. Obviously, that required intricate plotting.

My latest is almost stream of consciousness in how it's played out. Much less harrowing to write.

At 11:23 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I like your idea better. It works for me too!

At 11:28 PM, Blogger eileen said...

Don't change on me, Deb! You're my hero(ine). And at least you notice there's a yard! Congrats on the new house, btw.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Dineen A. Miller said...

I'm so glad you shared this, Deb. I'm struggling with whether or not to try plotting my next book. I'm still not sure but your blog reminded me it's ok if I don't. Even if it takes a while, I'll get it done. The process is part of the journey too, and we all have our own journeys to take.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Dan, you have a point. With my novel A SCARLET CORD, which had an element of mystery, I did feel I needed to plot a bit more carefully. I tried using 3x5 cards, writing a scene on each one, color-coding by character, etc. In the end, I felt I would have had about equal success shuffling the cards and dealing a poker hand. : ) But seriously, the more intricate the novel, the more likely some plotting will help. Like Dineen said, it does take more time, but the process is part of the journey and I seem to do better with writing the first draft seat-of-the-pants, then I can work with a timeline, scene cards, and a plot outline in subsequent drafts.

Thanks to all of you for your comments!


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