I am terrible at plot.

For a very long time (46 years, to be precise), this was the main reason I knew for certain that I couldn’t be a writer.

It was, however, before I made two important discoveries.

1. You can steal plots. Pride & Prejudice always works, as does David Copperfield, but any story will do. When you’re done, readers might say, Wait a minute! You based this book on We Need To Talk About Kevin, didn’t you? They won’t mention David Copperfield at all, because along the way it has magically become your book, with nothing but a vestige of the original buried in the tribute — unless you are a scary plagiarist with no conscience who has lifted entire chapters. Which is bad and wrong.

2. You don’t actually need a plot. Learn to trust the workings of your deep inner psyche and the plot will emerge by itself. In addition, the subconscious mind will breathe life into your invented characters in much the way the Blue Fairy made Pinocchio a real boy. This is the magical bit of writing that you hear about, when characters take independent action, and plots twist and turn in unexpected directions.

I tend to be of the school that if you carefully plan every page before you sit down to write, your book will emerge rather like a coffin measured out by a carpenter: serviceable but a bit stiff.

If, however, you allow your book to develop organically, it will be full of life and energy and make your mother proud.

Just be warned that as well as offering moments of great discovery and joy, writing organically can be a hellish nightmare.

It’s frightening and nerve-wracking and often leads to despair.  But on the (many) occasions that you find yourself down a dark cul de sac, you’ll probably find lots of fellow writers there too, all cursing our miserable books–so at least you won’t feel lonely.

Eventually, with a lot of blood, sweat, uncontrollable sobbing and dogged persistence, you’ll get to the end.

You’ll be a wreck, a ruin, a shadow of your former self.

But the book will be better for it.

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21 thoughts on “How to plot your book the hard way.

  1. Louisa Reid 5 years ago

    I love that post! You have just made me feel so much better about my plots, my travails, my whole sorry existence! Thanks!

  2. Mieke Zamora-Mackay 5 years ago

    Your coffin analogy is exactly how I feel about how going overboard with plotting. I learned this the hard way, plotted and entire novel, from start to finish. When I started writing the piece, I felt too constrained and wound up frustrated. I ended up throwing out the outline altogether. Now, I use a bare bones skeleton just to keep the focus.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    1. Antony John 5 years ago

      Me too, Mieke. I find that writing from a chapter-by-chapter outline is akin to precisely recreating a movie that you’ve already seen several times (and which consequently bores you). The joy of writing, I think, is in communicating a movie that’s unfolding before your eyes: the drama, color, and confusion of it all.

  3. K M Lockwood 5 years ago

    Coffins and skeletons – sounds like my sort of plot!
    I like a bit of corseting too.
    There are more ways to…
    ( add metaphor of choice)
    Thanks for the post

  4. Candy Gourlay 5 years ago

    >”You’ll be a wreck, a ruin, a shadow of your former self. But the book will be better for it.”

    Well that’s all right then.

  5. Jane McLoughlin 5 years ago

    Besides, blind alleys are where all the fun stuff happens, right?

  6. Anande 5 years ago

    This post speaks straight to my heart. I’m working on a novel, and sometimes I feel like it’s killing me. Thanks for the encouragement!

  7. April Tucholke 5 years ago

    Plot. I love plot. Less this: what the characters look like, what the landscape looks like, what motivates the characters, how they grow over the course of the novel. More this: revenge, secrets, corpses, nudity, unreliable narrators, madness. I can’t help it. I hide it pretty well, but inside I’m 100 percent pulp.

    And yes, stealing from Dickens is an author’s right and privilege.

  8. Georgia 5 years ago

    Pretty much that entire blog post sums up how I feel about plots and characters and writing. When I started my story I just had two characters and I had no idea what was going to happen. I just wrote down whatever the characters did. I guess it makes them feel more real. Although whenever I try to explain that, people tend to think I’m a little crazy, but I don’t really mind.

  9. Alice lichtenstein 5 years ago

    I love your post. Somedays I’d do anything to construct a coffin, hop inside and find someone willing to lower it into the dark earth. But most days, I’m merely your plodding, bleary-eyed organic writer, waiting for my characters to get a life!

  10. Rowena House 5 years ago

    Thank you so much. Brilliant. Now would my hero please shine a light down the dark cul de sac of despair. Please …

  11. Véronique David-Martin 5 years ago

    Merci for this post, Meg! I too deeply relate to what you say and feel relief in finding another (and others in the comments!) like-minded author(s). I have always been an organic writer (whereas I was always a very structured academic). I believe that stories and characters are born in the depths of our unconscious. Much time is then needed for them to germinate in that alchemical cauldron before they can rise (all bubbling up) to the surface of our conscious, virtually fully formed. As you say, the waiting game, when all this strange pregnancy is taking place, is so much the hard bit about writing (full of self doubt and even self loathing). But the rewards are great if one feels strong enough and motivated enough to stick it out. There’s a bright light at the end of the long tunnel (and no, it’s not a train!).

  12. Lucy Coats 5 years ago

    Ha! That cul-de-sac should have a coffee shop and cake. Stuck writers NEED cake…. As always, dear Meg, you are spot on. My own writing ‘journey’ – as far as novels are concerned anyway – is a bit like a road trip. I know where I’m starting, some of the stop offs and the destination, but the fun bit is where I get side-tracked into those interesting little windy lanes with fascinating views and unexpected twists and turns.

  13. nicola baird 5 years ago

    Today I have written nothing (it’s only 2pm, so I may), but I did watch a video of an ostrich running amok on a highway. For me, to do lists and research are so easy to sidetrack that I kid myself that this diversion was all part of the plan. Honestly, why do readers want a plot? When it works out really tightly it’s just a tiny bit annoying for the reader who may prefer a more organic approach…

  14. Jen P 5 years ago

    “If, however, you allow your book to develop organically, it will be full of life and energy and make your mother proud.” Wow. Now THAT is a tall order. She keeps making remarks – along the lines of ‘what makes you want to write?’- whilst looking wistfully away not wanting an answer. I’d better get cracking and finish my WIP. Thanks for the oft needed encouragement.

  15. bookwitch 5 years ago

    I have spent almost 56 years knowing I can’t write a novel. You can’t just come and say that I can!

  16. Shari Green 5 years ago

    Plotting has often felt like the bane of my writerly existence, so I truly love this post. And yes, it does help to know there are others out there cursing their miserable books… 😉

  17. Mary Beth 5 years ago

    Bookwitch I’m with you. We can be noob-twins lol.

    I went into NaNoWriMo with not much of a plan and was stunned when not so many pages in the characters seemed to know more about what was going on than I did. I was still wondering how I knew their names and addresses.

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  19. Carrie-Anne 5 years ago

    I’ve always written very organically too, though for some projects I like to have a general outline or list of chapter titles so I know what’s going to happen when. Then again, I’ve always preferred to read and write books that are more about growth, change, and development instead of plot-centric genre fiction. As long as you know the general events that happen in the book, it should be more about the journey of getting there, not a mad race from Point A to Point B in exactly a certain trajectory within all of 288 pages.

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