Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 3, 2011

Plot School on the Porch

A few friends asked for a peek at the plot school I’m running for myself here on the porch, cat and glass of hydrangeas near my elbow. Most know at least as much about plot as I do. The hard part is putting it into practice. Making all the stuff about withholding information, or at least not overwriting, and building on character change ours. This is what things look like, starting from, ahem, about ten years ago.

1. Write a novel based in history, drafting it into what I think is perfection.

2. Hear, more than once, that the characters and situations are interesting, but it reads too much like biography, not enough like fiction.

3. Put away the manuscript and take about nine years to let this sink in. If you’re playing along at home, note that the waiting doesn’t have to be this extended. Just long enough to forget old habits, or ties to scenes that took some sweat. I waited while tending to other subjects, but found this kept up a whisper in the closet, while other manuscripts stayed idle and quiet and done.

I started a rough draft of what I think are key scenes without rereading the original draft. I know. It’s like the wrapped present before your very eyes that you wait to open. I’m not always so good on the deferred gratification, but it helps that I know there will be dialog and details I can eventually plunder. And I like writing messy drafts on warm days. 

4. Here in Plot School, I’m asking myself over and over, how does this scene change my protagonist? Then, when I don’t have good answers, leaving some history to history. Remembering most kinds of love are known by setbacks. Once or twice a day, I tidy these rambling pages. If I could fit them onto index cards I would, but I think of them as chunks that way. Reminding myself that each scene has to have walls or corners, places where people can badly stub their toes. I remember bits of scenes, carefully researched and phrased, that went into the original, but unless I see my character running into them and coming out changed, I’m telling myself to forgo. And be happy with more streamlined action. Some secondary characters will stay in the old box while I make my dear one hit walls. They may be almost invisible for another more plot-driven writer, but feel like high ones for me.

5. How’s it going? I really don’t know. I’ve had talks to myself about plot before and swore I was listening. But it’s hard to get past old habits. I have a high tolerance for lingering and meandering, in fact, it’s a pace I may love most. It serves me well in research, but there are times when busy readers would like us  to move from A to not just B or C, but Q.

My husband read this entry, then sent me a photo he took about ten years ago, when apparently I had already started Plot School, which takes a long, long time.



  1. The plot thickens!
    I know I’m not the only writer struggling with plot, but it’s so helpful to hear specifics of how another writer — a really, really good one (that would be you!) — also struggles with this. I was at the International Womens Writing Guild earlier this summer and took a terrific plot class. One day we focused on mapping: where are different places, where action takes place, relative to one another? Where are natural meeting places (a cafe, grocery store, the post office, etc) where characters might happen to bump into each other and create opportunities for enrich the plot? Where and what are obstacles from one place to another, that a character must figure out to how to get around so she can get where she wants to go? And I realized I had no sense of any of that. So in this current round of revisions on my manuscript, I’m finding that mapping out where the characters’ houses are relative to each other (up a steep hill?) and such is not only adding depth to scenes and characters, but is also a helluva lot of fun. I’m curious if mapping has been a technique you’ve used, and how that has worked out for your plots. Write on, Jeannine!

  2. I liked the line, “I like writing messy drafts on warm days.” And I’m impressed that you can rewrite a story without looking back at that draft. Using the wrapped present analogy, I’d probably have to rip open a corner or two. 🙂

  3. The warmth puts me into a creative if sluggish space, which I enjoy. The mind moves slowly, but it moves.
    Yes, it is so tempting to peek! I think it may work because I’m not TOO stern with myself. I tell myself — today’s the day to open up a corner — but — just wait twenty minutes — and then, tricky me, or gullible me, I get involved so can keep going.

  4. Re: The plot thickens!
    Jayne, the mapping sounds so interesting, though I haven’t tried it. Place is so often what gets me going, so maybe I fear getting stuck there: mapping out places, but wanting to put up my feet on a chair and just gaze. Gazing is good, but for me, it doesn’t help with the plot. But what intrigues me here is the visual: anything that knocks me away from words for a while seems like a good way to move along and ahead.
    And it certainly sounds like it’s working well for you — adding depth as well as structure: wonderful! Maybe I’ll have to try… thank you!

  5. “How does this scene change my protagonist?” Good one.

  6. It is HARD to get past the old ideas! Thanks for sharing this! Wonderful!

  7. *sharpens pencil, flips to a new notebook page*
    I’m a willing student, eager to learn any lessons you’re willing to share. I have a sneaky suspicion our M.O.s are somewhat similar, though I’ve had far less practice (and fewer successes-to-date) than you.
    ((Thank you!))

  8. It’s a tough question, especially when some scenes just seem pretty, and I want to beg to keep them…

  9. Yes, Laura, some of the old ideas are who we are and should stay. And some .. just habit, needing to be poked.

  10. Thanks, Melodye. Yes, I think we both like a slow pace, which works for some things, others not so much. Good luck!

  11. Exactly–and thanks! I need to find that balance between tortoise and hare, ’cause (at least for me) there’s a fine line between following one’s muse and losing focus.

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  14. You are smiling – so it’s a fun school, too. Happy plotting.

  15. Love it!

  16. Smiling when I’m not tearing out my hair. But mostly smiling. It all has a momentum of its own, and I try to tag along.

  17. Thanks for visiting, Karen!

  18. This is wonderful, Jeannine – thanks for sharing! Love: “Reminding myself that each scene has to have walls or corners, places where people can badly stub their toes.” I’m guessing there’s not really a graduation from plot school? Or maybe not for lingerers and meanerers like myself!

  19. Robyn, good luck with the meandering as well as the plotting: I think some blend has got to work out best, and we just scramble there in our own unique ways. And it does seem like back-to-school is how plot school goes. Though I’m happy to award any of us diplomas for doing the work!

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