Cheeseburger Gothic

Should you plot out your best selling novel?

Posted May 17, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

When Raymond Chandler wrote himself into a corner he found the best way to escape was to have a man with a gun walk into the room. I loved Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and they all but founded the sub genre of hard boiled literary noir. But he did admit that by the end of The Big Sleep he’d pretty much lost track of the bodies.

We all do.

Hanging narrative threads, forgotten side quests, unfilled plot holes, they’re the hazards of working at length. There’s a couple of ways of dealing with them. First, don’t. Just accept you can’t run down every blind alley to the very end, and trust that not too many readers will notice.

(Pro tip, they’ll notice).

You could trust to your editors and back fill the later drafts, but this relies on someone else picking up the mistake. Or you could story board the whole book and do it as a paint by numbers exercise. It sounds tedious and little constricting, because it is.

In the George R.R. Martin interview somewhere down the page, the big guy talks about the two types of writers he knows – the gardeners and the architect. The first throw out a story seed and wait to see what grows. The latter don’t write a word until they’ve drawn up detailed blueprints and specified ever single nail and nut and bolt they’ll need.

There are no such creatures in real life, of course. We all sort of plan and we all let the story run wild, but he’s right. Most of us lean towards one method or the other. Having had the experience of getting deep into Weapons of Choice and realising the half dozen previous books I’d written hadn’t prepared me at all to write it, I went into Designated Targets determined not to get painted into a corner, or lose track of the bodies, or tofall back on random guys blundering into every chapter with a gun.

It worked, sort of. I had much better control of that book than Weapons, and the writing went a lot easier. It was less frustrating, a hell of a lot better structured and I had none of the deadline slippage problems that dogged the first of the trilogy titles.

For book three, however, I went back to the gardener method. Mostly. I had a couple of plot points I knew I had to hit and a rough idea of how to get there, but I gave up on following a strictly mapped out path through the story.

I’d found that although the work flowed with fewer blockages and spills, I didn’t enjoy having to brute the characters through. They had their own ideas about what to do in any given situation and their intentions didn’t always sit well with mine.

It sounds odd, a bit of a wank, even. But I think it’s inevitable when you write point-of-view stories. Or at least it is for me. Why?

When you’re writing third person PoV you’re inside the head of that character. If you’re doing it properly it doesn’t take long before you become the character. I recall Martin saying something about this during the interview. He often finds himself staying with one character for long stretches of writing time, just to stay in their heads. I’ve done something similar with the Disappearance novels, writing whole arcs from, say, Caitlin’s POV, before going back and starting on Milosz.

When you’re writing in-character you really do end up shape shifting into that person. You see the world differently.

It’s just not possible to do that – or I don’t find it possible, anyway – sitting at a drawing board, mapping long narrative arcs for particular characters before you’ve written a word of their story. I found that as soon as I set them in motion, my fave characters had quite different ideas about how things should play out.

So now, I try to have some idea about where a particular book will go, and perhaps a few points it’ll pass through on the way, but I don’t schedule everything like a package tour.

With one caveat.

This method breaks down for shorter titles. Stalin’s Hammer: Rome got out of my grasp because I just set Harry and Ivanov loose on the city with vague orders to bring me back a vast Stalinist plot within ten or twelve chapters. Turns out vast Stalinist plots are harder to wrestle to the ground than you’d think. I also had some issues with Ivanov’s journey under the old city taking up much more time than I’d imagined it would, leaving Harry with less ‘page time’ than I wanted.

For Cairo, then, I’ve reverted to story boarding. I’m trying to be flexible about it. I just cut a couple of chapters because I could see they were going to lead me wildly astray and blow the word length out from 35 to 70K. Good value for you. But not so much for me. And not for you either if you’d like me to be getting on with the series.

How do other writers approach the problem of plotting out? Some crime writers go to the trouble of writing entire alternate arcs where any one of half a dozen characters could be the perp, then when they’ve settled on who they want, they just go back and delete anything which isn’t relevant. Or rather they delete most of the irrelevant content. The few bits and pieces remaining in the final draft stay there as red herrings. I seem to recall Agatha Christie did something like this.

Others, who look like they plot, don’t. Lee Child has some fiendishly complicated story lines which look as though they had to have been planned out to the last comma. But no, he insists he is a gardener. He gets the idea and runs with it, even using Chandlers ‘random man with a gun’ device if he writes himself into a corner. He’s also a lot less concerned with real world veracity than, say, Freddy Forsyth. If Child needs to make some shit up to get himself out of a hole, he makes it up and, like a magician, spends his efforts on distracting your eye from the rabbit in the hat.

Should you be plotting out?

I dunno. I’m not you, but I suspect that certain forms lend themselves to it more than others. Big sprawling fantasy epics can afford to sprawl and spread and take three or four hundred page detours because they’re as much about world building as anything. But even they have their limits.

I imagine that Game of Thrones (yes, yes, I know, It’s A Song of Ice and Fire) will have to bring the white walkers and the dragons together in the final battle. But the pace at which the story is advancing for now leaves me wondering whether Martin can get us there in two books – which is all he has ‘planned’.

37 Responses to ‘Should you plot out your best selling novel?’

MickH asserts...

Posted May 18, 2013

I thought his structure was to write the chapter in sequence then throw them in the air. The way he then picked them up determined the order in the book!

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yankeedog has opinions thus...

Posted May 17, 2013

I never really thought about this, but it's interesting. I know now why I don't write for a living-too damn much work!

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Matthew F. mumbles...

Posted May 17, 2013

My Warhammer stablemate Bill King talked about this in a blog post, and I liked his take on the balance point between the two approaches. He compared it to planning a trip. Some people plan a trip literally down to the number of minutes it will take to stop for petrol, some just throw some stuff in a bag and set off down any road that looks interesting. Most people will do something in the middle: plan their main movements, stops, expenses, what they want to see and do in each place and so on.

But once you're on the road, you find things change. The town you thought you were set to spend a week in is deathly dull but that tiny village twenty klicks further on looks pretty cool, so you switch up a couple of nights. One museum eats the entire time you had planned for one city, but then you find that the thing you were going to two stops along has been closed and so you redistribute the time. Your original itinerary is still there, it's just... evolving.

I notice Chuck Wendig uses the same analogy, albeit (of course) with more swearing, less pants, and flinch-inducing references to baboon porn:

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted May 17, 2013

It's a pretty good analogy. It doesn't need the baboon porn.

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Kieran is gonna tell you...

Posted May 17, 2013

Thanks for the insights, JB. Been thinking about this a lot. I started my current project as a "gardener", and ran into all sorts of problems for a different reason - at the moment I have to put down and pick it up a lot, and it became impossible to hang on to all the threads. With enough time in between, the story changes while youre writing it - I think maybe because, as a friend of mine pointed out, you keep changing yourself. Course it probably boils down to a personality thing too. But the best thing about the planning thing for me is it's left me willing to rip things out and chnage things with abandon, and probably let me learn more things more quickly than I would have otherwise. As to whether one of the characters will pull a handbrake turn halfway through my careful little world, or if it will all feel played out by the time I get there, well, I dunno. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted May 17, 2013

I think that given the number of threads you have to hold in your mind, the way you need to suspend an entire world in your head while you write a book, it'd be all but impossible to do it in bits n pieces without a plan.

But that's me.

Mark Gordon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 18, 2013

My debut novel "Desolation Boulevard" is 150000 words of post-apocalyptic mayhem that is totally unplanned. I virtually had no idea what would happen from one chapter to the next, but I think that made it all the more fun to write. By allowing plot elements to "percolate" in my mind as the story continued, I found they they were able to become major parts of the book later on. Some of my favourite scenes in the book evolved when I stupidly wrote characters into situations that were (at the time) impossible for them to escape from. By sleeping on the problem for a few days, though, I was able to rescue them through some extremely inventive and exciting means. I can't imagine being able to go down these byways through planning.

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Trowzers asserts...

Posted May 17, 2013

Appropriately, given my nickname, I am much more of a 'pantser' than a 'plotter'. And definitely much more of a gardener - something I enjoy outside writing as well! But meandering through a story leads me to wander right out of the story and into a completely different one, which is why I have a box full of unfinished stories, but barely any finished ones. One day I'll figure out how to stay on track (or find someone willing to get the whip out) and get these damnable endings out of my head and onto paper. Getting to the middle is no problem - it's the wrapping up that seems to be the hardest part!

w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted May 17, 2013

I recently heard an author interviewed. When asked the inevitable "where do your stories come from?" ;

He said, "They always seem to start with one line that just pops into my head."
"Oh, so you just get the first line?"
"No, it is always the last line. Then I wrote a book to work out how to get there."

Which struck me as kind of funny, but perhaps not.

Matthew F. ducks in to say...

Posted May 17, 2013

I've done stories like that. Came up with an awesome closing line, came up with a closing scene to have something to hang the closing line on, then came up with a story to have something to hang the closing scene on.

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Analog Penetration puts forth...

Posted May 17, 2013

When is Cairo coming out?

w from brisbane reckons...

Posted May 17, 2013

Yeah, Mr John R. R. Birmingham!

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted May 17, 2013

Sept, Oct, ish.

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maddygrace puts forth...

Posted May 17, 2013
I tip my hat to anyone who can write more than 3,000 words. I recently went to a talk with Graeme Simsion, where he explained his writing process. He said that he never gets writer's block because he always knows exactly what he is going to write, every time her writes - because he always plans it all out. So I guess plotting can be useful. But I don't even know where you author people get the imagination from to actually write a novel!

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MickH ducks in to say...

Posted May 17, 2013

If its your first time in the bull ring.


Plot plot plot! Its the only way you'll end up with a finished MS.

But JB has a point with gardening and its something i find myself doing with my new projects particularly the short stories.

I (and with lots of help from YankeeDog) plotted out Q7S in detail. First I did a coarse story board, sort of a general description for each chapter. Nailed that down them went to a fine story board on each chapter using points. All up it came to about 30 pages and a couple of weeks of part time work.

With this I was able to fill in the gaps where and when i felt like it. I was able to faff about sometimes and even added and deleted bits but I essentually stayed within the story board.

I would use that method again.

A down side for me was you got all the story imagining done early and thats the bit I like and keeps me motivated. I found it became a bit of a drudgery after that just filling in lines. Well, it wasn't just filling in lines, the characters came alive at this point so it wasn't that bad.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat asserts...

Posted May 17, 2013

For me, gardening is fine with short stories. As soon as I started writing stuff over around 5,000 words, I had to change my approach and start to plot, even if was just the "must-have" critical turning points of the story plus the beginning and the end. I found this stopped those moments of panic where I just didn't know where to go with a story, which was a more common experience for me with longer pieces of writing. Generally the longer the work, the more plotting I do, but it still focuses around the critical points of the story - very linear plotting is a creativity-killer for me. I like mind-mapping for plotting too, that lets me see the larger patterns and links in the story.

I agree that you do want to keep track of all your plot points/threads and if you don't, you risk losing some readers (especially those readers who are also writers!).

And I also accept that my characters will regularly hijack events, so if where they are going is good, I'm happy to run with it. Mostly the stuff that comes out of them is better than what I had planned (they are way meaner than me).

One writer on the Odyssey Writing Workshops talked about doing serial synopses - having a plot and synopsis to start with, and then stopping periodically during his novel to redo the synopsis and take stock of where he was going.

After a number of years I've finally hit on a method that is working for the novel I am writing now. I'm thinking that's great for this piece, but I'm not sure what I am doing will work for other pieces I will work on later. I have a feeling that you probably need to adjust for each book. When I actually finish more than one, I can let you know then! But bottom line is, you need to keep trying out different approaches until you find the one that works best for you. If writing is important, you will find a way.

Have fun at Book Club tonight.

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted May 17, 2013

There's a great qoute from some very famous and important novelist whose name escapes me but who never wrote short stories because 'he didn't have the time'.

He felt the plot had to be so intricately controlled at that length he was better off writing long.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 17, 2013
God, I wish my brain worked like that.

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JBtoo puts forth...

Posted May 17, 2013

I think Mr Martin could do with a bit more architecture. I've enjoyed the GoT books, but with the last one, in particular, I started to think he was making it all up as he went along, because he literally seemed to have lost the plot.

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Bill swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 17, 2013

About the only thing that makes me immediately stop reading a book is when a character does something that seems dumb and out of character so the author, IMHO, can advance the plot. I guess that's most likely to happen when the author is following an outline. I need my hero in this box so he can be accidentally loaded onto the bad guys space ship. How about I just get him to walk over and climb into it even though he has no justifiable reason to do so and no reason being anywhere near it.

In many cases I stop reading the author altogether.

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Blarkon ducks in to say...

Posted May 17, 2013

Pratchett said to never shout the question "how do you keep your balance?" to the guy on the high wire.

I think the Internet and technology changes our nature of expectations about an author keeping control of their manuscript. That in a digital form, a manuscript should be "more malleable" than if it was pages coming out of a typewriter.

There are certainly tools today that can keep track of even the most fractal of narratives (mindmapping being a good start, but any diagramming application on a tablet is going to allow you to drag stuff around in a way that would be bloody difficult on butcher paper or a whiteboard).

I suspect that today's reader has greater expectations in terms of narrative complexity and coherence than a reader of a couple of decades ago. You can see the same thing in TV and Movies - I was watching the "writers room" special feature on the Season 3 Blu-Ray of Trek (which includes Ron D Moore talking about his first job (interestingly a lot of the Next Gen writing team at about Season 3 were on their first gig)) and they mention that TNG would have problems surviving today because the expectations around a show's narrative complexity are a lot higher than they were back in the late 80's.

MickH puts forth...

Posted May 17, 2013

Yeah, they have to keep bastards like us entertained :)

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Jayanthi's Atomic Cat mutters...

Posted May 17, 2013
I'm curious as to how much pre-planning goes into people 's characters before they start writing (as distinct from plotting events). Are people making notes of what they look like, what they eat for breakfast, etc? Or are the psychological drivers of character more critical for youse all?

MickH mutters...

Posted May 17, 2013

Some writers I know, JB is one of them, will write a characters whole biography before writing a single word of the story. It helps build the character in their mind as a unique identity

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat asserts...

Posted May 17, 2013
I can relate to the bio technique. I do that. I find it helps the characters assert themselves during the writing, rather than simply being vehicles for the pre-determined plot. I don't get as much enjoyment from stories which feel that way, a la what Bill said.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 17, 2013

Yup. It's not unusual to spend more time on character bios than on the plot summary.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat ducks in to say...

Posted May 18, 2013
I quite like doing first-person character bios, effectively getting the characters to sit down and write out their life story. Not like year by year, but mapping their lives by events that were - often still are - significant to them. I almost never write stories in first person but I find this really gets me inside their heads. It's particularly helpful with characters I don't like - more insight makes you understand them better, therefore more able to empathize - just like with real people. Well, not all real people...with some of them understanding leads away from empathy...sigh.

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Jayanthi's Atomic Cat has opinions thus...

Posted May 17, 2013
The cunning plotters amongst you will probably like alistair Reynolds' whiteboarding technique shown here: . May have spoilers, his whiteboards often do.

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Dino not to be confused with ducks in to say...

Posted May 17, 2013

Thanks JB,

Timely advice as it's happening to me right now as I write my 'best selling novel', which just happens to be my first. Onto chapter 4 (16 000 words so far) and having to keep hand written notes to tie up lose ends or unfinished threads. The unfinished threads 'just feel right' and will hopefully allow for more development down the track. I am a gardener of sorts. I have written a brief outline with a couple of incidences in each chapter to 'steer' the book into a direction. A seed or two in each chapter if you like.

I can see the need for storymapping as the work becomes more complex and/or memory fails to retain the ideas/arcs. It is bloody complicated! I feel I could never be a professional writer because I can't reliably write on demand and want/have to write when I usually have to do something else! Why can't life just wait a few months until I finish this FKN Book?

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat would have you know...

Posted May 18, 2013
Onya Dino, just keep slogging away at it and get that first draft down! I know how hard it is to get the writing done with life always getting in the way - anyone who writes does. I found Eoin Colfer's ('Artemis Fowl' books) advice from an interview of his really helpful. He said 'Write every day, even if it's just one or two sentences.' For me that took the pressure off of trying to 'produce' when life was being obstructive - but it got me into the habit of writing every day. I think the writing part of me responds to regular exercise and now I really miss being in the world of the novel when I don't go and I am 'producing' with a lot less effort. It may not work for you but you never know...
I confess I read about JB's multiple deadlines much of the time and feel glad it's not me...will stick to bringing in a salary, writing and beta-reading for now!

Dino not to be confused with reckons...

Posted May 19, 2013

Thanks J'A'Cat,

I will keep sloggin' like everyone else!

What MickH says below scares me, 3 years!!!!

I'll be grown up by then.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat has opinions thus...

Posted May 21, 2013
I'm not sure that growing up and being a writer are compatible... Hurry up with that draft!

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MickH is gonna tell you...

Posted May 18, 2013

It took me nearly 3 years to write the first draft of Queen of the Seven Seas, 90k odd words and mostly written on the train to work.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat mumbles...

Posted May 18, 2013
Alistair Reynolds says he took ten years to get Revelation Space down, and from memory i think that was only the first draft.

Persistence and patience are true writing virtues.

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Emily asserts...

Posted May 22, 2013

This is an awesome post. Thank you. Btw I think it's wight walkers... Wight is a cool word for corpse or something.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 22, 2013

Ta. Sorted.

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