By Maggie James
I mentioned in last week's post that I'm frequently asked how I create my characters. Another question I often get is to what extent do I plan my novels, and how I plot them. That's what I'll be covering in this week's post, focusing on my fourth novel, The Second Captive.
So do I plot my novels in advance, or am I what's known as a 'pantser'? (The term refers to authors who write by the seat of their pants, never quite knowing what will come next). Well, I've tried being a pantser, of sorts. My first novel, His Kidnapper's Shoes, was written from a rough plan thrown together in Microsoft Excel, with a tab for each character and a line summarising what I intended to happen in each chapter. Not really 'pantsing' it, but hardly very organised either. My first draft ended up at 146,000 words. To get to the final novel, which is 82,000 words long, I had to chop out a lot of dead wood and characters, and editing was a far more painful process than it needed to be. Had I planned the novel better, I'd have avoided all that extra work. I resolved to mend my ways, and to plot more thoroughly in future! For me, it works well. I like having a solid plan for each novel before I start work, and I believe it helps avoid writer's block. There are no excuses for not writing when you already have a blueprint for what comes next!
The Snowflake Method explained
In common with many novelists, I use the Snowflake method to plot my books. Pioneered by Randy Ingermanson, it's a ten-step method of arriving at a coherent plot outline, complete with character sketches. Why is it called the Snowflake Method? Let's look at this way of drawing a snowflake. Take a triangle, add new triangles along each side, and it's not long before a snowflake emerges. The principle is the same for plotting a novel. Each step of the Snowflake method builds on the one before, and within ten steps, you end up with a fully-fledged outline for a novel.
The first few stages
Step 1 is to write a one-sentence summary of the novel. This is a useful exercise in itself, as it concentrates the mind on the essence of what you're trying to convey. For The Second Captive, Step 1 read like this: 'A young woman and her family suffer the effects of Stockholm Syndrome.'
Step 2 involves taking that initial sentence and expanding it into a full paragraph, detailing the story set-up, major events and the ending. Step 3 involves writing a paragraph for each of the characters. This is when I created Beth Sutton, the protagonist of The Second Captive, as well as Dominic Perdue, her antagonist and a dark, disturbed individual. It's always fun creating the bad guys! In Step 4, you take each sentence from Step 2, and expand it into a full paragraph, thus ending up with a one-page summary of the novel. In four steps, we've gone from a sentence to a page. See how the snowflake is growing?
Step 5 takes us back to the characters again, fleshing them out into a one-page summary for each of the major players and half a page for the rest. The result should tell the story from the point of view of each character.
Developing the snowflake
Steps 6 - 9 build on the previous ones. The one-page synopsis ends up as a multi-page one, complete with a paragraph for each scene. The characters are also rounded out, as I described in last week's post about creating Beth Sutton for The Second Captive. What the author does is to prepare charts/notes about each character. I like to go into plenty of detail when I do this. Not just the standard stuff, such as height and weight, but what their motivators are, how they will change by the end of the novel, their interactions with other characters, etc. Their mannerisms, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. I also draw a chart mapping their relationships. Anything and everything that will help me understand them better.
And Step 10? The most important one of all - write the novel, using the Snowflake outline already created!
Things can, and do, change...
Once I have my outline, I create a manuscript file in Scrivener, the writing software I use (more about Scrivener later). I set up a tab for each chapter, with a sub-tab for each scene, and transfer in the notes I've already made using the Snowflake Method. I usually base my novels on being around thirty chapters long - that can, of course, change, but it's a useful starting point. I also set word targets for my chapters, aiming for 3,500 words for each one.
The screen clip illustrates what I did for the prologue and first few chapters of The Second Captive, each one being colour-coded to reflect the character's point of view. This changed dramatically by the time I'd finished, and now bears no resemblance to the picture!
Titles, timelines and mission statements...
What else? Well, I write brief notes about what I want to achieve with each novel. The Second Captive is the first one I've written using scenes, so that formed my mission statement for the book. My previous novels are in whole chapters, so I was keen to play around with using scenes. It was fun! The Second Captive is also different structurally from my other books in that it has a prologue and epilogue, with the main narrative being split into two parts. Each novel teaches me something new.
At the planning stage, I also make notes of possible titles (I find naming novels very hard!). Subplots get worked on, too, and I map out a schedule of events linked to a timeline. Getting my timeline right is something at which I'm very bad, so maybe that'll form my mission statement for my next novel!
A guide, not a ball and chain
Even with a comprehensive outline, I find I need to make changes as I write. The Snowflake Method is a guide, not a ball and chain. It provides a useful framework, but it's hard to see exactly how a plot will work until the writing process starts. Sometimes, an event makes sense at the outline stage, but when I write the relevant scene, it doesn't work so well. I certainly found that with The Secret Captive, needing to make big changes to several chapters. Again, Scrivener is immensely useful here, allowing me to move chunks of text easily, more so than in Word, and I can duplicate documents to play around with new ideas.
A donkey cart and a Ferrari...
So that's the Snowflake method, and it's what I used to take The Second Captive from a one-line summary to a fully fledged novel, using Scrivener. I praise Scrivener a lot, but I think it's the best writing software on the market, because it's so versatile.
I mentioned above that I wrote His Kidnapper's Shoes using Microsoft Word. Once was enough! I'd never go back to doing things that way. Word is to Scrivener what a donkey cart is to a Ferrari, in my opinion. I do use Word for some stages of the editing process, but as Scrivener evolves I foresee that becoming a thing of the past. I can structure my document files however I choose, making it very flexible. Another great feature is that I can add my research notes, pictures, videos, etc directly into the software, rather than having to flick back and forth to other programmes. In fact, I can split the screen in Scrivener, so I can have my notes in one part and my manuscript in another, making writing much easier. Another way of avoiding writer's block!
When I've finished the editing process, the software compiles my manuscript into Kindle format for me, or any other format I choose. Wonderful!
Any comments or questions?
I hope that this blog post has given you some insight into how a 'plotter' like me plans their novels! Other writers, what's your approach? Are you a planner, a pantser, or somewhere in between? Readers, any questions about the plotting process? Leave me a comment!
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