I am a meticulous plotter, but I have not always been so. When I start writing seriously, as a teenager, I would most often start with a vague idea and see where it took me. When I wrote SUFFER THE CHILDREN, which became my first published novel, I’d plotted the first half of the book, but I had no real idea how the novel would end, or how the supernatural beastie that is the Big Bad of the book would be defeated. I started it anyway, figuring that something would occur to me.
The book took me ten years to write, mostly because I got stuck halfway through and still couldn’t figure out how it would end. When I decided that I wanted to finish the novel, I decided the only way to do so was to work out the ending, and I sat down and wrote a three-page plot summary. From that, I was able to finish the novel.
I did not learn this lesson immediately, though. It took a couple more novels started and never finished because I couldn’t work out the ending, novels that ended up languishing in the drawer (or more accurately a forgotten folder on the PC) because they were abandoned halfway through before I learned the value of plotting.
Having learned this lesson, I am now a die-hard fan of plotting. Before I start writing a new novel, I will begin by writing a three-page plot summary, detailing all the major events that take the story from beginning to end, and including thumbnail sketches of all major characters. From there, I will elaborate on that outline by writing a chapter-by-chapter plan. Only then do I start writing the first draft.
I have met writers who are in favour of ‘pantsing’, because they believe writing to be more exciting if their characters continue to surprise them. I would argue that just because you’ve got your plot planned doesn’t mean that your characters don’t surprise you. I write from a chapter outline but quite often, in writing the chapter, the character still goes off and does something unexpected. I liken the writing of a novel to a chapter plan to planning a journey. You know your start point and your end point, but even if you plan your route you might still take an unexpected turn or two along the way, and this is OK as long as you end up at the place you wanted to be. When I wrote the first draft of DEAD COOL, I was quite surprised to discover, three quarters of the way in, that the killer was actually a different person to who I thought it was. This meant I had to go back and amend the plot summary for the second draft, and rework to ensure that the correct killer was uncovered. And in doing so I discovered that some plot holes I had skated over in the first draft were very neatly filled in for the second draft.
A planned plot means that whenever I sit down for a writing session, I start knowing what’s supposed to happen next. And since I have to fit my writing sessions in around the day job, I like the discipline of approaching each one with a plan.
I know that some writers really hate plotting. Ultimately you have to go with what works for you. My experience has taught me that I’m a writer who needs to plot. Perhaps you have a different view?
Sara-Jayne Townsend is a UK-based writer of crime and horror. She was born in Cheshire in 1969, but spent most of the 1980s living in Canada after her family emigrated there. She now lives in Surrey with two cats and her guitarist husband Chris. She co-founded the T Party Writers’ Group in 1994, and remains Chair Person.
The first two books in her amateur sleuth series about Canadian actress Shara Summers will be released by MuseItUp Publishing in 2014. DEATH SCENE, the first book (and a re-release) will be available from 22 September, with the sequel, DEAD COOL, released on 25 November. Both are available for pre-order from the MuseitUp online book store: http://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/our-authors/70-our-authors/authors-t/420-sara-jayne-townsend