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Plotting: Refine the Block

Originally published at Joely Sue Burkhart. You can comment here or there.

Previous posts: Raw Data, Ask the Questions, The Journey, Getting Stuck, Seek the Tone, Come Full Circle, the DVD Sleeve

A year or two ago, I took a quiz to find out what my “totem” animal is — sorry, I lost the link long ago or I’d share — and it suggested I was a horse at heart. Maybe that’s why each time I try to impose too much rigid structure on my process, I kick my stall to pieces. :D

At any point in this process so far, I may be writing. I don’t force myself to define all this work first. Each story unfolds differently. Each story needs different gel time in my head or on the page. I can rush the process too much–and have. That’s okay. It just means I have to revise more. No planning you work on before you write the story is wasted, even if you have significant revisions. The most important thing of all is to FINISH THE BOOK. Do whatever you’ve got to do to get to “the end.” If that means ditch the planning stage at some point and write, do it.

For Given in Fire, I decided to continue plotting the story. Some interesting elements have already come out. I have the “Burning in Water; Drowning in Flame” idea going. After getting the DVD Sleeve, I have a new metaphor/theme I want to play with: a candle. Watch for the little flares of magic out of the corner of your eyes. Those are the wonderful little serendipity elements that seem to mean nothing, but if you shelter those fragile little sparks, they could turn into something momentous. I know the idea of a candle is going to play a huge part in each character’s journey. It will be a symbol, in fact, for how they end up feeling about each other. Now that I know that, I can plan to use it from the very beginning. I can drop those little hints of foreshadowing into the story effortlessly before ever writing a word, and that’s what makes a symbol powerful. It’s the little subtle hints from the very beginning that tie the story together.

The next part of the process is to continue refining the DVD Sleeve, or “the Block.” We’ve already broken the story down into ten loose pieces. Now, break them down some more. As I walk each character through the Emotional Toolbox again, I will get more scene ideas. I’ll jot them down. As I look at the key words/themes that spark ideas, I’ll write them down. I’ll keep getting a list of possible scenes, and as I explore each one, I’ll ask a few questions.

What’s the goal of this scene? What’s the conflict? Why? What if Koray did this instead? Will this make her situation worse?

I also love to write a character letter for each core character, or interview them in some way. For the protagonist and love interest, I examine past defining events that lead them to this moment, to this ravine. I want to know their backstory, their core decisions that will make them act uniquely on the page. The most important thing I learn from these letters is WHY. Why does the character feel this way? Act this way?

Once I have backstory, I can lay a few more threads into place. If there’s some darkness in the past that I want to shine light on, I’ll mark that into the block.

From past experience, I know that each “scene” idea I end up with will be approximately 4 pages or 1000 words. Some will be longer; a few may be shorter. If I’m targeting around 20K for this story (but this isn’t written in stone–I can certainly go up to even 30K or possibly larger if I want), then I need roughly 20 or so sections. I’ll target about 2 detailed sections per DVD “block” title.

Again, I’m not going to perfect here. If one block suggests 3 sections, great. If one block only gives up 1 section, okay. I’m not even worrying about POV yet — although once I’ve refined the block to the desired number of sections, I do typically consider POV. Do I have a good balance? Does this story feel like 1st or 3rd? It can still surprise me. With Survive My Fire, I planned to write the whole thing in alternating 3rd, but Chanda came out so loudly, so strongly, I had no choice but to write her in 1st. That’s okay.

Depending on the story, I might create a storyboard for inspiration. I might also create a plotboard (scroll down the previous linked page) so I can visibly track the colored threads through the story and make sure I have a good balance. I might also create a spreadsheet so I can easily track my progress. Whatever feels useful for the story. I will say that the more details I have, the easier it is to write the story. I can put the “block” away and drag it out in a month or two, and very quickly pick up exactly where I left off.

How else do you think I’m tracking my progress through the Letters revision? A spreadsheet of scenes is my guide, even though I targeted the revisions I wanted to complete months ago.

Once you’ve refined the block, you could write a synopsis. This is a habit I’m trying to get into more and more so I can sell on proposal some day. I certainly have the story in my head, and while it will morph beneath the magic of writing, the core themes and arcs likely will not change, at least for me. In fact, once I “see” the story so clearly, I struggle to change it. It’s like a map blazed into the dark corners of my mind. To change it significantly, I have to wad the whole thing up, toss it in the mental garbage bin, and start over again. Even then, I can feel the afterimage lingering. (That’s why I decided to serialize the first draft of Night Sun Rising and start over again.)

What’s the use? Why “waste” this much time on plotting and thinking instead of doing the “fun” part of writing?

I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve started, finished maybe a chapter or three, and then stalled. Dozens. I *can* tell you that my first book — before I ever knew a thing about the craft of writing — took three full rewrites from scratch to get right. That doesn’t mean plotting can save any book. I’ve got two finished drafts of unrelated stories still on my harddrive that are in desperate need of work, and I did just as much plotting and thinking for them. But the key, here, is they’re FINISHED. First draft, the end.

After not finishing a single novel in 2005 because of doubt and fears, my number one goal is to finish. Plotting helps me get there.

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