My Brief Career As A Plotter

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A few months ago at a hostel in Malaysia, I got an idea for a fan fiction story. A longer story with action, adventure and a hint of mystery, starring the characters I had been writing about for a while now.

Because the idea was for a longer story (more than 20,000 words) than the ones that I’ve previously written (around 5,000), I decided it was time to write down a basic plot line following the hero’s journey.

Earlier this year, I read a book from Beth Ravis called Paper Hearts that goes through the basics of writing a book. There, Ravis shows her method for plotting called ‘chart structure’ that has four acts, all divided into four parts. As this was the structure I felt comfortable with, I planned my plot line following the chart.

This was a new thing for me as I had never planned this carefully before starting the actual writing process. And I loved writing down the plot – it was fun to know what was going to happen and have a feeling of coherence. This, I thought, was the way to get rid of those plot holes and inconsistencies!

Following the chart method was really almost like writing a very short story, and I really liked the ideas I had. I believed I had a good plot on the way.

The False Cure

When I started writing the story, at first everything went pretty well. I let the words come and wrote them down, writing the first four chapters. However, every night when I was thinking about the text, I realized some small inconsistencies or things that needed to be added in as foreshadowing for future events.

Slowly, as I wrote, the inconsistencies started adding up, it didn’t feel like I was foreshadowing enough – 

I mean, did I even know how to write an adventurous mystery? 

– and I wondered if I was wasting my time continuing to write the story when it felt like I was just making the editing process more painful with every scene that I wrote.

I realized I needed to plan way better than the chart structure. A better, more detailed plot line, not only for the main plot line but for the side plots, as well. It should and it would help me out, both in writing and editing the story.

So I opened a new Word-file, made a chart with four columns (one for the different acts according to the chart structure and three for the different plot lines) and started writing out the scenes more carefully, tracking the plot lines side by side.

It felt like I was doing the right thing. I was ensuring I was getting to know my story and my characters. Scene by scene, I was minimizing my work load in the editing part of writing.

I deleted the fourth chapter and started writing it from scratch. I edited a big part of the first chapter and was still unsure if it was right. I added some more foreshadowing to the second chapter and wondered if the third chapter was needed at all because maybe there wasn’t enough happening?

While thinking of all these things, what I didn’t realize at first was that I wasn’t writing the story anymore.

I was so focused on thinking about what was right or wrong with the first four chapters and how could I make everything as right as possible in the future, that I totally left the story file stand alone on my desktop. I didn’t touch it, I simply couldn’t, as long as I didn’t have a proper full outline for all my plots.

And I realized that somehow, all that plotting and planning took out all the fun of writing the actual story.

My Two Sides

But why? Isn’t planning and plotting supposed to be the way to a more coherent, intriguing story? Like the writer of a murder mystery writer who knows from the beginning who the murderer is and can therefore create false trails for the reader to follow? Why couldn’t I do it?

The weird thing is, when it comes to writing, I’ve always considered myself as a plantser. I write down a loose idea or a beginning of a plot line that might have an ending and then I start writing. I don’t put down too much time to plan the characters or the world, but let them build themselves while I write.

Then again, when it comes to life outside of writing, I’ve always been a planner. If you’ve read more of my blog posts, you know that I enjoy being organized, managing my time and goals. I love writing lists, having things tidy and structured according to the alphabet or a numerical value.

I thought it would be easy to implement my organizational skills to my writing – but the truth has proven to be almost the opposite.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed in myself because it felt like what I had thought was a definite step on the development path for me as a writer turned out to be a total bust. 

But then, as some quotes happened to change my perspective some weeks ago, a passage in a book helped me see my plantsing in a better light.

What book, you may ask, by whom?

Well, no other than On Writing by Stephen King.

The Return of the Plantser

According to my quick analysis, Stephen King is somewhere in between a pantser and plantser. His stories start with an idea of what if… and from there, after some thinking, he starts writing. He lets the characters do their thing and the story tells itself. King, as a writer, is only there to put pen to paper, like an archeologist is there to uncover a fossil.

This passage in the book (pp. 163-165) woke me up from my decision to become a plotter and made me think of the plantser-plotter dilemma from a different perspective.

If all this time I had had fun writing without really knowing what was going to happen, why was I taking that fun away from myself? And if I have been writing good stories without plotting everything down to a detail, why change?

And after thinking about King’s words for a day or two, I decided to let go of plotting and resume to my plantsing. Some people are planners, some people are not – and the key is to know what kind of writer you are and play your strengths.

I believe I am a hard core plantser.

So, in the future, a basic plot line will do or I’ll only come up with the starting scene and let the story take me anywhere from there. Yes, it might lead to more work on the editing side, at least at first. But maybe I will be learning while I’m writing and for every new draft there will be fewer inconsistencies and enough foreshadowing? 

It is, at least, something to aim for.

Am I Proud To Be A Writer?

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Lately, there has been some conversation among the Finnish writers about taking pride in being a writer. For many, writing fiction and/or fan fiction is something they don’t tell about to other people. Maybe it’s for the fear of being judged or because it feels like writing is sacred only when kept to oneself.

(I used to be familiar with the latter one, though with books. When I was 13 and read Twilight for the first time, I loved the book so much I didn’t want to tell about it to anyone – I was afraid the book would lose its appeal if someone I knew also thought it was awesome.)

As a 9-year-old kid, I wasn’t afraid to tell people I wanted to become J.K. Rowling when I grew up. I wrote stories, even a school play, and wasn’t afraid of letting the teacher read my texts out loud in class. Many in my class knew I was the writer in our class, many said I would be a writer in the future.

There was a slight shift when secondary school began. That’s when we pretty much stopped writing stories in class, and writing became only a hobby for me. But still, I didn’t stop me from sharing my passion for writing. All the fan fiction I wrote, I shared online. The few short stories I wrote, I let my teacher read and give feedback on them. When I was participating in NaNoWriMo, I let some of my friends know.

In other words, I wasn’t afraid of telling people I write.

However, today, as I’m pursuing a career as a writer, I do find it difficult to tell people I’m a writer. That I don’t just write, I’m actually a writer. That I am what I do.

Seeing Writing For What It Is

I think it’s because I feel people don’t see fiction writing as a full-time job.

Many seem to think that isn’t writing a book just about putting words down to create a story and poof! you have a ready-to-read novel? The only thing left to do is to pick a cover for your book, organize a release party and then wait for the sales numbers to go up?

Even I, as I started pursuing my career dream of being a writer one and a half years ago, didn’t know how much went into writing. Now, however, I know that if you really want to, you can make novel writing into a full-time job. All the planning, the research, the writing, editing – it takes time. It’s easy to put down hours after hours to writing and then editing a novel.

Writing books is a real job – but it feels like something only writers and publishers know about, and therefore it is hard to make someone believe writing can be made into a full-time job.

The other reason I have trouble telling people I want to write full-time is that they don’t see it as something you can support yourself with.

It’s what my parents told me when I was nine years old.

They probably have a point – it’s very possible, at least in the beginning, that you won’t become self-sufficient only by writing fiction but this doesn’t mean I cannot make writing into my job. Publishing a book can lead to other financially nice opportunities than working in café/as a cashier/a receptionist alongside writing. For instance, lecturing, visiting schools and libraries and other writing and reading related projects.

I’d much rather work with projects than that than doing something “just because I need the money”. At the same time I’m aware of the fact that it takes a moment to get that first novel published before the other opportunities can come into the picture.

Finding The Courage To Believe In The Dream

Most of all, I think why I’m nervous about telling people I’m a writer is because I’m wondering if I can make it.

There’s a difference between wanting something and being able to get it. Am I good enough to make it, to write a book a publisher wants to work on and make into a proper publishable novel?

And all those actions I’m planning on taking to become a writer: investing in writing software and an e-book reader, reading novels, reading books about writing – am I worth it, I notice myself wondering. Am I doing this, for real? Will it pay off? And…

What if it doesn’t?

By telling people I want to be a full-time writer is scary. It’s a vulnerable thing to say, to reveal your dream or passion for something.

This fear, however, proves that by talking or telling about it I’m doing the right thing. I’m actually facing my fear – and through that, I might actually manage to write a book someone wants to publish and/or read.

What drives me is the encouraging fact that I know writing is what I like doing best, it’s what I love to do. By finding the courage to tell other people that I’m a writer and this is what I aim to do the rest of my life, I might open new possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told about what I want to do in life.

And – I don’t know if I want to believe in the “even if it doesn’t pay off” way of thinking, but even if something would happen that would alter my writerly pursuit, I know that I’m at least letting myself pursue my dream and passion.

I do that by publishing my blog posts, my fictional short stories. But I also do that by telling more and more people I am a writer and want to be that full-time.

And that’s something I do find pride in.