Plot Perseverance and Plodding

Lessons learned from writing a novel very slow.

Most of you know I write pretty fast – three months on a book (first draft) is slow – but most of you don’t know why I do it.  Also,  I’ve taken a year and a couple of months to write a book before Witchfinder but the process was completely different.  Normally when a book takes me that long to write, it is because – like poor Noah’s Boy – it keeps getting interrupted by more urgent stuff.  (In Noah’s Boy case, this was mostly health.  It occurs to me, mostly because Stephen Green talked about his health issues and people thanked him that I must at some point do a post about the weird intersection of hormones and writing in me, because other female writers might have the same problems, or develop them as they age.  But it wasn’t all health.  In the middle there, after I got rights back to Draw One In The Dark and Gentleman Takes a Chance and before I’d done – or thought of doing – anything with them, Baen decided to re-issue them after all.  This meant that I had a chance to do some revision (the first book badly needed it, just on wording.  It was written while I was recovering from concussion, something that brings up all the English dialects I ever learned, so it went from British one paragraph, South African the next, [my grandfather spent 20 years in South Africa and he was one of the first people I practiced English with, when I started learning] then shaded to the Midwest, then settled in Colorad.  It was unsettling for me to read) but it had a drop-dead in early December, so everything had to stop while I pursued that.  BTW, that’s good news about DOITD and GTAC.)

That is a slightly different process and while it suffers from some of the same symptoms, like for instance plot skew, it’s not so much plot drift as picking up on it again and realizing I can’t do it as outlined.  When I pick up months or years later, I’m not THAT writer, anymore.

So, first let’s dispose of the reason I try to write fast and without stopping once I’ve started a project – because I’m handicapped.  Actually honest-to-goodness measurable brain issue.

For years I’ve told everyone that I test profoundly handicapped on visual IQ tests, and this is true, but the reason I test that way isn’t necessarily visual intelligence per se.  I can visualize stuff and work from that visualization, as has been proven since I started doing art.  No, my problem, which also affects word puzzles of the acrostic kind and definitely affects number puzzles is that I’m almost completely incapable of visualizing PATTERNS.

This is a very specific kind of intelligence, as we found when we had the younger kid tested, because he has no limit to it (as in, they ran out of sets.)  He sees patterns and codes better than anything else.  This is the sort of person they throw seeming senseless messages at and the person discerns the code.

Well, he has it, and I’m totally lacking in it.  (Curiously, this is the reason he preferred non fiction to fiction for a long time.  He saw the “pattern” very early, and could see how it would end.  Now he’s learned to read for other reasons.)

This is why I came into the field with fully alive characters and had the hardest time in the world figuring plots.  My first published novel, I stole the plot from Tam Lin and sprinkled it with Shakespeare, and hoped it would work.  (Not coincidentally, what I’m trying to figure out in art right now is composition.  This is not un-akin, in its first groping efforts to a blind man trying to figure color.)

Well, as we d*mn well know, even a deaf person can learn to sing, and after twenty years of groping and practicing – and a heck of a lot more time reading plots – I can see the “plot shape” of a book.  It’s nothing as formal as an outline (though I outline, also, often the plot shape is cleaner than what I outline which tends to get pulled about by characters, which means I have to fix it in post.)  It is more literally a pattern-shape in my mind.

The problem is that I lose that hard-won pattern if I get distracted (and this is why I hated selling on outline, when I had to, with a purple frothing passion.) or if it takes too long to complete.

For those of you who crochet or do some other handy work, imagine that you can see the work in your head, but not write it down, because THAT changes it – and you have to finish the project before the pattern in your head changes, which it will, very gradually.

Ideally, I write a first draft in three weeks, because then the pattern is set, and I can work around it to clean it and make it clearer.

Now, I might be completely wrong on this, but while I am handicapped (probably having to do with the circumstances of my birth) I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with patterns/plots.  In fact, I know at least one other published author in the field who has almost exactly my issue.  (I’ve never asked her about the circumstances of her birth, which could confirm or deny the brain-issue hypothesis.)  And a lot of women writers in general have issues with the “plot thing” just like men have issues with the “character thing” – this is generalized and, yes, possibly sexist, but I could give you reasons both innate and training why it is so.  However, like any other generalized statement, it applies only to statistics and not real people, so chill.  There are outliers, on both ends.  There are people like Dave Freer who are good at both plot AND characters.  (We would hates him, my preshious, but he’s such a nice guy we can’tz.)

And, again, I might be completely wrong on this, since I’ve never been anyone else, but most writers seem to write novels more like I wrote Witchfinder (though usually not writing only Fridays – though some do) than like I write my normal novels, so a disquisition on what I learned from the experience might help someone, or at least make you stare in a kind of fascinated horror.

1-      Plot.  Oh.  My.

I started out with a more detailed plot than I normally do, because I KNEW it was going to need to be there, to back me on the days I came up empty.  Most of you have tweaked to the fact that Gabriel Penn stepped out of his role and took center stage.

What most of you don’t know is that almost every other character did too, and that the novel took a violent wrenching turn from where it had been meant to go.

While Nell was always meant to be the lost princess, this was not supposed to come out for five or six novels, during which time she and Seraphim would develop a partnership saving unfortunates in worlds where magic or shifting was deadly.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, what I’d meant the plot to be was one of those that could be easily serialized under “adventure and rescue” with a set of characters who changed/grew/revealed SLOWLY over time.  A type of series more like Nero Wolfe than like my Magical British Empire set.  Seraphim was supposed to take center stage in this, and the adventure was supposed to solve the mystery of his father’s death and set him fully as Witchfinder for the future.  In the end, Nell was supposed to return to Earth, but they would have a tentative thing going.  Yeah.  That worked.  Head>desk.

How it happened – faced with writing this under the gun, and while busy with other books/stories, or plodding through health issues, I found that I had to write what I could write that week.  This forced me to be way more pantser than I normally am.  The pattern dissolved and I had to go with whatever thread of feeling/character was strongest at the time, because that’s what speaks to me most clearly.  So the d*mn thing because a group-novel with all hands in, Gabriel Penn revealed supernatural origins (to be honest I THINK this would have happened over an episodic scene, anyway, and Nell took the bit between her teeth, and Seraphim’s family… well… you saw.)

2 – Perseverance

I think in fifteen months, I missed ten “regular posts.”  This in a year that was worse than usual for hormonal oscillation and just several rounds of “crud.”  Posts got done through cons, vacations, illnesses and minor (or a couple of major) personal disasters.

I’m not absolutely sure what this means, except to tell you that it can be done, no matter how busy you are or how insane things get.

I was writing Fridays only and often managed less than a thousand words (though sometimes seven thousand would just flow. And sometimes I wrote another day of the week.)

The final count comes to 150 thousand words, which is not at all shabby output for a pro writer per year, and this was my VERY part time work.

You can do it.  Full time job is NOT an excuse.  Block off Saturday afternoons or something.  If you want to do it, it’s possible.

3 – Plodding

One of the things I know I’m going to have to correct is that the novel would fall in these iterative loops.  I’ve observed this before in things like fan fic that are posted episodically.  You have an episode due, and you’re simply NOT up to a great effort, you post a chapter in which something happens, but not something that will majorly affect the plot.  This can give an effect of loop-de-loops, though I later used some of those as foreshadowing for major stuff.

If you’re forced to write like that, don’t worry.  First, it might not be as iterative as you think (I don’t know.  I haven’t read it yet, might prove far less so than I thought) and if it is you can fix it in post.  It’s more important to keep your date with writing than to make sure you baked it a cake (as it were.)

Now, where do I from here, now the first version of the novels is finished, “in the public eye” as it were?

The first thing is to let it sit for a couple of weeks – which is easy, because I have a ton and a half of stuff I need to catch up on, including a short story for Baen, a couple of novellas for Goldport, and some other commitments, as well as reconnecting with my family (the problem having been Noah’s Boy, btw, not WF.)

I’d really like to get a day or two for bothering dinos in there too – but we’ll see how money is since driving to Denver involves gas and then there’s at least one meal at Pete’s, of course.

I have already entered the difficult-book-is-finished cleaning phase and it’s about half done.

This is good too, because it creates a mental distance.  Until I do other stuff and fill my brain with other characters, WF will be there, in the background.  I want it gone, so I can read it with fresh eyes.

I’m guessing I’ll find a lot of iterative loops in the book that will need to either be removed or smoothed out.  I know I’ll find a lot of “pointers” at things that ended up no happening.  For instance, in the beginning, I was going to give a lot of weight to his rescues, so…  They will still be there, in the sequels (though not all – or perhaps most) sequels are from Seraphim’s or Nell’s POV, so there still needs to be a hint of other worlds.  Besides, this is set in the same universe as the Magical British Empire which legally is now in my hands (getting the company to GET that they must cease and desist might take a little longer) which means I can now give hints of that, and integrate the two “world builds” – which probably means I need a new name for the d*mn thing too (the universe, not the novel.)

The thing is, I DON’T KNOW if I’ll find iterative loops.  When I’ve had to re-read my work years later, I’ve often found that what was in there was not at all what I thought was in there.  Like, in the YA, I THOUGHT I’d kept my politics under wraps.  That worked.  Not.

But that’s one of the things I MIGHT have to do. The other thing is to foreshadow the stepping-forward of minor characters.  The Honorable Jonathan Blythe will need foreshadowing since I think the next book in this world is his.  Gabriel will need foreshadowing.  So will the prophecy.  His mother might have to make a couple other appearances.  The rest will need to get smoothed out.

Basically, I’ll have to add foreshadowing, remove foreshadowing, and then go in and weigh events properly, to draw the eye to the right points.  I might leave in stuff that won’t come to fruition till later in the series, but it needs to recede to the background.

This is not so different from what I do in normal books – only in those I have the guidance of the original plot, which in this case has been well and truly trampled and can’t be counted on at all.  (Or to quote RES in a different contest, I got it drunk, took it out in the woods, and I shived that b*tch good and proper.  The original plot is DEAD and buried.  So I need to reconstruct a plot from what I do have.  I don’t know how much will be grave digging and Frankenstein and how much is a little baby plot under all that.)

I’ll note with amusement that this is one of the problems they warn you might run into when you do the National Novel Writing Month (which I stopped doing because it seems to be a jinx thing) hence one of the normal encouragements in those circumstances “no plot, no problem.”  I.e., you can fix it in post.

For now these are all the thoughts I have, and they’ve rambled as much as that poor zombie plot.  I’ll keep you posted as I dig the grave and hook up the electrodes.

In the end, I’ll have a functional novel — I promised it, so it will happen — but in between there will be a ton of learning.  Maybe we should all change our process now and then, if nothing else — like learning a foreign language to help with your own — to see our own process more clearly.

69 responses to “Plot Perseverance and Plodding

  1. Spoiler alert, girl, spoiler alert! Some of us here don’t read WIP and have been waiting for WF to wind up before reading it. Now I don’t … mutter mutter

    AND it turns out that all my efforts to locate and procure DOITD and GTAC are not only being dung-heaped but DOITD will change enough that I will have to purchase and read it twice?

    Sigh. Some days it just don’t pay to get out’ve bed. At least I’ve managed to clear the recorded Craig Ferguson visit by Mrs. Neil Gaiman, which fits the day’s surreality surprisingly aptly. Hopefully by late afternoon I will find my head and manage to do something about the sinuses.

    • Dorothy Grant

      All teasing about getting your pun-ishment aside, I really do hope you get well soon.

      I’d join in on the spoiler alert, but I’m afraid I started reading about six chapters from the end, so everything I know is spoiler, and I’m spoiling for the reworked beginning of the story.

    • Hehehee. xD I was skimming over spoilers too so names and situations wouldn’t stick. Thankfully, I am on antihistamines and I woke up sleepy, so that will help.

    • I wouldn’t say DOITD WILL change that much. It’s a word here, a word there. And the old version is going up in the Free Library, if it’s not up yet. And they’re being reissued — I THINK in May.

      • Oh goodie, if it does I’ll have something to give The Spouse for his birthday. That man is almost impossible when it comes to gift giving. ;-)

  2. I had to laugh. If you can do a whole first draft in three weeks, you don’t need National Novel Writing Month. I love it for the deadline and those delightful little graphs showing your progress.

  3. Please write more about the hormonal issues. :) I’m a couple of years older than you…

    I seem to be somewhat your opposite when it comes to strengths and weaknesses, I’m pretty good with patterns, more visual than anything – in tests I score highest in those where it’s only pictures, if the test question is presented in words I won’t necessarily get it at all, much less be able to solve it although I do have a tendency to guess right where the plot is going in stories somewhat more often than not and choose what I read more for characters, and sometimes worldbuilding and settings, than for plots – so while your experiences may not be directly useful for me this was very interesting.

  4. When I was working on a Masters in Adult Education (couldn’t finish because I became ill), I found in one of my classes that I am an aural learner. Visual is not one of my strong points (except in my head). It might have a lot to do with I was almost blind since I was around seven until I had laser surgery in my early 30s. Plus I still have that pesky astigmatism.

    This also interferes with spatial and other things. I have tried world-building exercises, but didn’t do well until I started playing with a character. On the other hand, I can see patterns, which is why the recent attitudes I have been finally seeing are scaring my sh*tless. I can see how the actions of a large group can cause certain effects in the future. I can also see a pattern of one person’s life and how it affects those around them.

    I can read people– there is no magic involved. Of course the chemo has made my antenna bend a little– ;-)

    Oh yea– I found it interesting too. BTW my mother was in labor with me for 24 hours. There may have been some oxygen problems. The doctor did a slice when he realized that he might lose us– I don’t know if that would affect areas of the brain especially since we know that the malleable brain does rewire.

  5. Quote:
    And a lot of women writers in general have issues with the “plot thing” just like men have issues with the “character thing”

    God yes. The character thing dead-ended all of my attempts at writing. My last story idea cratered on the female lead. It wasn’t even that she was an unbelievable character: bookish lady who eventually becomes a powerful wizard. I just couldn’t figure out how she made the transition from awkward kid into the force of nature she eventually became.

    The sad thing is, I figure anyone with a 10 year old level of emotional intelligence. Just not me.

    • I think I’d rather have the plot thing. I have characters sitting around in my head for months, if not years, doing absolutely nothing. Then I get the Idea if I’m lucky. I can start. Then I typically run aground on what-happens-next? Over and over and over. Sometimes the logic of it takes care of that issue, but not always.

      You could always traumatize your bookish lady, so she has to find her inner strength and ability to wield magic in order to save her goldfish/dog/BFF/True Love/parakeet. Then she can be appalled. Then it can happen again.

      My problem is that although I can figure trauma could change someone, coming up with good traumas is hard.

      • Or have someone threaten her library. [Evil Grin]

      • Dorothy Grant

        What’s the worst that could happen to her? Nah, not that, I mean really, the worst thing for her, not generic_character_01. What does she fear? Attack by strangers? Loss of control? Loss of her job? Glaring light of the media eye, asking her what has been determined in the obvious arson case where it was really her magic getting loose when she got trapped in the stacks by a very scary guy?

        Now, how could that be even worse for her?

        • Though that can be tricky, because you have to get “what’s the worst thing that will not break the character into an un-fun heap?” It can be a tightrope.

          *beth prods one of her characters with a stick* This one needs a rest, or he’s gonna break, if I’m not careful.

      • I tell the Idea that it has to let me write a really, really, really rough first draft, to let me know that it’s a full idea and not just half of one. This is what I call the outline.

        To be sure, as it turns into the second draft, generally known as a first draft, it sprouts subplots and complications and other characters and foreshadowing, but if it can’t tell me what happens, I tell it I can’t tell it.

        If your first drafts diverge from your outline, this technique will, of course, not work.

        • Mary, does doing the really, really, rough draft/outline mean you know how the story will end? I’ve gone with an idea for a short story, stalled out in the middle, and then waited somewhere between six months and two years to have it hit me how it will end.

        • The funny thing is, I decided to go back and start working on it again, and I discovered while I was writing out the backstory/myth of how the setting world came to be, I’d managed to change the premise of it enough that what was going to be a major plot point simply couldn’t have happened that way. Or more specifically, one of the main villains for that arc could not have existed. Oops.

          This is a bit of an annoyance, because the new mythology resolves several of the consistency problems I was having with the setting. It just creates others in the process.

    • My problem comes from trying to leep the characters from all turning psycho at some point. :-D

    • The big secret is that plot and character are complementary. Your personality is how you respond to events. The plot is just characters doing their thing.

      • Oh, yes, of course. But your actions MUST advance the plot. Women — not all women, don’t hit me — tend to have their character dress up and go shopping a lot. (Well, unpublished women who haven’t learned.) Unpublished guys who haven’t learned have explosions and fights, but you have no clue WHY. (Now, they may, but it ain’t on the page.)
        The funny thing was mentoring a middle school writers’ club and seeing this much earlier.

        • Would it help for a man and a women to collaborate using their complementary skills?

          • No idea. I chose to learn the other skill. If my husband and I tried to collaborate, we’d kill each other.

            Actually that’s an issue. Both sides look at the other and go “How can you be so stupid?” To collaborate requires that you have SOME of the skill your gender normally lacks. Enough to “get” it.

        • Now I like to eat– so my characters sometimes stop and find something good to eat ;-). Not all time, but I have found that a good sit down meal will prompt the characters to divulge their evil plans.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Heh. The teenage daughter of a friend of mine has started writing a story (a paranormal romance, go figure), and so far she seems to be a little short on the whys and wherefores, as you describe with men. Haven’t read enough of it yet (it’s a little painful to read) to find out if she’ll go in for the rambling activity thing like shopping for no particular plot-related reason.

          I told her you had recommended Swain’s book, and someone else suggested putting her in touch with this other writer who does writing workshops. Can’t remember the name, but when I looked her up, she’s on both yours and Stephanie’s friends lists on FB, so I figured she’s probably not a grey goo type.

          • I have been pondering the ways in which a plot advances through shopping … unfortunately, I keep wandering into the Penthouse Letter venue.

            Perhaps the protagonists go shopping at a gun & ammo store, discover there is a shortage of ammo because of a secret government plot to disarm all freedom loving Americans and have to shoot their way into and out of the underground storage bunker where the DHS has been stockpiling ammo, blowing the place up spectacularly.

            • shortage of ammo… have to shoot their way into

              Ah, as they went shopping for ammo one might think that they needed ammo. Therefore for the into part they may have to have found another source of ammo — which should give you more for the story.

        • Thanks to you, Sarah, every time my MC goes to a trade meeting, arms show, or art auction, I hear a little voice say, “is this shopping necessary?” Let’s see, one of her jobs is as a trade middleman and delivery specialist, so yeah, it is. Thppppth. ;)

          She and her significant others do tend to eat a lot. Mostly because it’s “ah, finally, a few minutes off our feet before the next disas . . . turn off that pager!” (Yeah, I worked with paramedics, how can you tell?)

        • Too many people simply don’t understand this. They think, “Action good!” When that happens, a lot of readers respond with, “Writing bad!”

        • Too many people simply don’t understand this. They think, “Action good!” A lot of readers respond with, “Writing bad!”

  6. Raymond Jelli

    Well….my flight to Florida was cancelled. I can start my next story….YAY BLIZZARD!!!!!!

  7. That explains it. It certainly ended with a much different feel and direction than I expected. Although it could be that it’s been so long that I read the beginning that I don’t remember the beginning correctly.

  8. Our hostess mentioned NaNoWriMo and how it seems to be a jinx. I’ll happily corroborate that. I’ve got about 87k words on a novel, most of that during November a couple of years ago. Haven’t finished it. Same trouble this most recent one. On the upside, I know I can knock out 50k words of more or less coherent narrative in a couple of weeks or so. Downside, I haven’t managed it during a non-November timeframe yet. I think the solution is a deadline, but I haven’t yet figured out how to arrange such as an internal motivator and make it stick. Plug, plod, plug, plod, etc, ad nauseum.

    • Yep, it jinxes for me too. I’ve tried it two or three times and I’ll go out like a racehorse the first half of the month, then stumble and never touch the story again. It did teach me how to write more than a few hundred words in a sitting, so it’s not all bad. But every October I stare down the barrel of November and consider it. And then I get all antsy about working on a jinx project and decide not to.

    • It’s definitely not been a jinx for me. It’s when I’ve racked up serious word count, and it taught me that 100 words a day was a floor not a ceiling. This is not to say that I’ve finished everything from NaNo, but I think of my two unfinished documents as waiting for me to get back to them after I’ve gotten out the first two. The best it worked was doing half the novel, 50,003 words one November, and almost finishing it in NaNo summer camp the following August. Done in September. I’m in the third round of revisions on that one, and then off it goes to Baen for its shot. (Just ’cause B didn’t take the first one doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try again.) I plug away between NaNos, and have done some short stories, too.

      Because NaNo is word-count-uber-alles, I do find it helps me tremendously with WHN syndrome (what happens next). I get all frantic and put mountain lions in Maryland to liven up a dinner party in a novel about orbital debris. I’ve added some weird things during NaNo, with the thought of taking them out later. Mostly, I’ve kept the weird things, even the mountain lions.

      • The other thing I learned from NaNo was to trust the idea factory. I used to start out only placing obstacles if I knew the solution to them. Now I go ahead and cross my fingers that I will figure something out after I have got someone in a total fix. That seems to work better than my risk-averse nature would like to admit.

    • we could start one here…

    • I’ve broken 50K both times. The problem arises when November’s over and I’m trying to finish, and it’s like pulling nails.

      • Yeah, I start out great, then burnout. I finished both times I did it, but it mostly convinced me that the rigid schedule and deadline just added stress, not quality.

  9. Seraphim was supposed to take center stage in this, and the adventure was supposed to solve the mystery of his father’s death and set him fully as Witchfinder for the future. In the end, Nell was supposed to return to Earth, but they would have a tentative thing going. Yeah. That worked. Head>desk.

    BWHAHAHAHAHA. Yeah. That worked.

    And considering the utter goosebumps as she raises the sword, I can’t find it in myself to complain that the characters took over and sent the plot into warp speed.

    On foreshadowing? I was writing a one-viewpoint book, for Reasons. But I really needed to give some other-viewpoint stuff, for Reasons. (Primarily, two important characters were both handicapped by Main Character’s Language As A Foreign One… And didn’t have their own say.) I eventually realized that Reasons could be gotten ’round by first-person, and added in some backfill, and… that has fixed so much. Now I just need the rest of the household to Not Be Sick (two weeks of Sick! Augh!), and to figure out how I’m going to use that gun on the mantle (I know I’m gonna use it, but I need to figure out exactly how), and then I can be done and edit the thing instead, which will be much more fun.

    Yes, I prefer editing. I am strange. You knew that.

  10. “The problem is that I lose that hard-won pattern if I get distracted (and this is why I hated selling on outline, when I had to, with a purple frothing passion.) or if it takes too long to complete.”

    In other words, once you start, don’t stop. That’s been one of the biggtest things I’ve learned while writing.

  11. I got lucky (I think) — I learned Plotting and Characterization from, of all places, Role-Playing Games.

    Plot — “OK, the characters need to be able to figure out the ‘ghost’ is actually an insane man hidden in the building’s disused areas; what can I do to provide them that opportunity, without bludgeoning them over their heads? Hmm — have things disappear which only a living person would need; have that ‘cold spot’ be the result of air leaking past the hidden door; have a record of his deterioration after the incident… not a direct line of bread-crumbs, but enough to show someone ate here recently.”

    Character — Steve Jackson Games’s _GURPS_ comes in *really* handy here, as it lists a whole bunch of entertaining character advantages and disadvantages; a brief skim through, and I can have a character together. “OK — he has a drinking problem, and an aversion to filth; he had to mop up a corpse a while back, drinks to try and forget, and still remembers the stench of the blood and loss-of-bowel-and-bladder….”

    NaNoWriMo: Between the Local SF Con, and the Turkey Night Grand Prix (look it up), November is quite possibly the *WORST* time for me to try to write something. If they were paying, I might be interested; they aren’t, so f*** ‘em.

  12. I’d be interested in hearing more about the pattern ability of your son. I think primarily in words, not pictures, but do some design work that involves working with patterns. I think I do it using it some sort of spatial capability, since I can’t usually visualize what the final result will be until it is done. (A family member who thinks in pictures seems puzzled as to how I do it. If I could explain it in words, I would.)

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  14. Sarah, thank you for this post. I just started Witchfinder last night after your post, and it’s very interesting to have read about your original plan while watching the story unfold. Also, I’m not sure you have spoilers. To the extent I read your post correctly, I think your subconscious may have had other plans for you and WF.

    Btw, I read Neptune’s Orphans recently, and it haunted me for days.