Friday, November 18, 2016

I can't plot for love or money, should I quit writing novels?

Let me first start off by assuring you that this isn't a question about quitting writing.  I know how you feel about the Q word and, therefore, know better than to write in threatening to use it on myself.

But it is a question about changing course.  At what point do you ever feel - or would you advise a client to consider - a pivot to be inevitable?  Is there a certain number of years or number of attempts that would start to give you doubt?  I'm coming off of a particularly brutal 9-month round of querying and rejection, my 5th in ten years.  

 The feedback, not just for this novel but for every one that came before it, has been consistent.  To the point where I've written back to agents asking, very politely, if they really mean it or if their form rejections are always that gentle and encouraging.  I've been told they mean it.  "Love the writing," they promise.  "Beautiful language, great setting, believable characters.  But the story doesn't work."  The story. never. works.  

So often I see people getting rejected for the opposite reason, where they have awesome stories but struggle with the nuts and bolts of telling them clearly, and I feel envious.  Because I'm confident that they can learn the nuts and bolts.  Things like sentence structure and word choice can always be improved on and there are classes and workshops aplenty to address those kinds of issues.  I've taken lots of them myself.  

But you can't fix something that isn't there and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm just not a capable storyteller, if I'm simply missing that chip in my brain and I don't know how or where to get it.  Last night, for example, I confided my newest idea to my 10 year old daughter and she immediately pointed out a plot hole so big and obvious and embarrassing that I broke down crying as soon as she left the room.  I can't help but feel that, at this point in the game, I should know better.  I should be better.  I've always been a person who writes, it's been part of my identity for 20+ years, but I still don't feel like I am really truly a Writer.

So I have to write, obviously.  I can't not do it.  But I'm wondering if I need to try something different.  Not every writer is a novelist, after all.  There are other forms of expression - short fiction and essays and poetry - but even considering them feels, in a way, like giving up and I'm having a very difficult time mustering the energy to convince myself otherwise.  A push in either direction would be much appreciated.  A slap on the face if I'm being a big baby would probably work too.

I don't think you're being a big baby at all. I think you've identified a shortcoming in your skill set and you don't know how to fix it yourself.

This is why people have coaches.

It seems clear to me that you can either take steps to improve your story telling skills, or you can change what you write. Either of those are honorable options.

The question really is, which one will make you happy?

I believe that you know your purpose and true calling by finding and doing what brings you joy.

And I'm not talking about scotch and cigars and the tender ministrations of a well-oiled cabana boy who thinks crows feet are sexy. (Too much dino porn yesterday, our minds are in the gutter.)

What I mean is what motivates you to leap out bed in the morning clutching your stylus and reaching for your clay tablet (we are old school here, no fancy pen and ink stuff for us.)

If you want to tell stories, but just have a hard time with plot, enroll in a class on plot and story. Often it's just a matter of learning how to outline properly so you can see those plot holes sooner rather than later. Or partner with someone who does know how to plot and work together. Writing teams are all over the place these days.

And honest to godiva, quit beating yourself up about plot holes. It's not like we all haven't done or seen that before. I've seen entire novels without plot at all, let alone a gaping hole or two.

In fact, I was just telling our bright eyed and bushy tailed interns here about a client's novel which I shall Not, Understandably, Mention By name that had gone through my eyeballs, a beta reader, AND a copy edit before one of my interns caught a plot hole.

Verily how we did scamper to get that fixed before sending on submission!

And if the idea of enrolling in a class and working on a new novel just makes you shrink down and want to crawl under your duvet with a pint of Ben & Jerry's Hazed and Confused

well, here have a spoon. I've done that many a time.

Failure is not changing course.
Failure is not pursuing a new art form.
Failure is not trying new things.

Failure is stopping before you find joy.

There are a lot of things in this world that will make you cranky and crazy and scared.

You need joy. Don't let any avenue go unexplored until you find it.



CynthiaMc said...

I read or saw an interview with Danielle Steel a while back where she said her first 6 or so books didn't sell. She was glad she didn't quit because the next one went over the moon and so did the ones following.

Hurrah that you know what you do well and what your weaknees is. A lot of people don't know and won't listen when those who do know try to tell them.

I highly recommend the Save the Cat series. They're written for screenwriters but novelists also use them. Best explanation of story structure I've ever seen. You may get an 'aha' moment or two and that may be all you need. Save the Cat goes to the Movies is nothing but story structure breakdown of movies like Legally Blonde (a personal favorite) and many others.

Write on!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

OMG posting this today is just plain freaky. I’ve been dealing with the decision to halt all fiction projects (forever), because my mind seems to think arcs are for geometry not writing. Plot, oh wait, what the hell is that?
I’ve been writing since Mary was lactating and published hundreds of times. But, even with my writing accomplishments (modest for sure) the pursuit of the novel is the carrot to ultimate writing success. I always seem to want what I can’t have. Three novels, one memoir and hundreds of columns, essays and articles later I still often feel like a writing failure.
So OP you will be on my mind today as I head out to work right now. Jeez I wish I could part of the comment thread but I am out the door. I need this.
See ya later Reiders.
Have a nice day.

Nadre said...

There are some great podcasts that focus on plot and structure- Storywonk is a good one, and I love Writing Excuses. And Dan Harmon has an ebook on Story Structure you can download for free. I also recommend the occasional hideaway with a pint of Ben and Jerry's- been there!

Unknown said...

I have found to have helpful and well-explained ideas about many aspects of novel writing, including plotting. After a few rounds of rejections, I'm reworking my thriller based on what I learned there. I thought it was great before, but it's much better now, (and really wasn't so great before :). Good luck! When you find holes, just fill em and keep going.

Unknown said...

I've got to say if you have a 10 year old helper you should definitely use her. At that age there is a clarity of thinking that we can all learn from. I used to teach third grade Sunday school. Wow, I learned so much from those kids. But seriously, go back to your kid and ask, "so that didn't work, what do you suggest?" You'll probably be surprised by the results.

Susan Bonifant said...

Wow. I could have written this several times over the last few years. Your daughter's detection of the plot hole? Yup, I had that, and a very similar reaction when I was by myself later on.

I know lengthy first person accounts here are discouraged so I'll keep it brief. I have all but stopped writing fiction, but not because I made a decision to. I stopped because my essay work started to do very well and I had no time for pretend-writing anymore. Worse, I wasn't necessarily missing it.

And this frustrated me because:
It was my plan
It was my dream
It was my hope

But it was also in the way of something I was doing which:
Made me feel something deeply while I was doing it which turned out to be joy.
Made me look forward to each morning in a way that had nothing to do with my schedule
Made me feel like I was doing a thing I loved every minute of the time I spent on it.

Oh, I thought at some point a few months ago. It's this that I'm supposed to be doing, isn't it?

It's hard work to let go of the thing that is in the way of the other thing. But PLEASE, remember, brilliant writers are not that way just because they don't give up. They are that way because they let go of one balloon, when the other drifts by.

They grab it, and they soar, still.

If you love writing, there is a writing form for you that's perfect. If you're like me you'll discover it when it annoys you to turn to your fiction because that other writing you were doing was so much more fun.

Find the fun.

Good luck, and XO

Unknown said...

And watch this video of the South Park writers. It is simply the best plotting advice I have ever seen or heard.

AAGreene said...

I actually disagree with OP a little bit - I think the plot structure is what can be learned more easily than natural writing ability. I think of it as organization - plot is the way our writing is organized. Learn how to organize (however one chooses to do so) and one can write any story they please!

I recommend KM Weiland's website "Helping Writers Become Authors." Her teaching style is very straight forward and she has a story database that breaks down movies as real life examples. Her new book on character arcs just came out as well.

The moral of this story is KEEP WRITING. Make your soul sing, whichever song it chooses :-)

Unknown said...

PS to my previous comment: give yourself some back pats for raising a daughter who is such a good reader, and has useful analytics and insight! That's no small feat!

Unknown said...

I so suffer from this! I'm very (VERY) lucky to have been picked up by a wonderful agent who loved my writing around a year ago, but she thought my story was completely bonkers. Literally, THE CALL came in the form of a voicemail which started, "I... I don't think this will sell. There are flaws... but there's something about your writing I can't pass up." NOT the daydream fodder we all imagine! But the voice is key, she believes. I sure hope she's right :)

I'm here to tell you I think you have it backwards. In a choice between writing voice and plot mechanics, writing voice is the golden egg! I think that's the think you either have our you don't. We can all learn to plot (at least I hope so!) and as for tips: Janet is right, it's all ablut planning before drafting. A lot. Turn that 8k outline into a 4k, into a 2k etc until the heart of your story emerges.

So here I am, proof (not sold anything yet so take with liberal salt) that you can get fantastic agents if they think you have potential. Good luck!

Linda Strader said...

I feel your pain. When I wrote my memoir, it started out just for me...not for fun, but to help me through a series of devastating losses. I shared it with a few friends, they encouraged me to expand it. I'd never written a book before. I had no idea what the heck I was doing. But I kept writing because it felt good. I joined a writers critique group. I found a friend with editing experience...before I knew it, the idea of publishing was born. I found out the hard and painful way from many rejections that the story was not good enough. I'd cry for a day, and then set off to improve it. Over and over..I took a writing course. It improved even more. What I am saying is that if I, Ms. Never Dreamed She'd Write a Book and Get it Published can do it, so can you. As long as this is what your heart truly wants.

Theresa said...

In the Land of Good Advice, this is spectacular.

I also think it's easier to learn plot and story. OP might want to check out Lisa Cron's books.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie: plot holes? I had plenty of 'em in my first draft and second draft which I or my crit partners found. We'll see if my beta reader finds any in my third draft. So much to learn, isn't there? Two blogs that I've found helpful for story structure are Janice Hardy's Fiction University and KM Wieland's Helping Writers Become Author.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

One of my in person writing friends (that's right, guys! I made a friend!) and I were talking about our rough plans for our current WiPs. She outlined, kinda, I did not. Hers is a tangle of relationships, mine is not. I said something along the lines of "Oh, it didn't occur to me that X character might..." and she's like "You're so cute! You're all plot, plot, and I'm like WHEN WILL THEY KISS."

Not that I think my plotting is terribly strong either. Or, I think my plotting tends to be simple. Which is fine, I don't need to be M. Night Shymalan with my twists or anything.

Anonymous said...

I struggled with similar issues, and actually found that writing micro and flash fiction to be a great way to learn how to build an interesting, though simple, plot. For me, building plot through 100 words, or 1000 words, kept it concise. I didn't have to worry about the intricacies of a 300 page novel. Having these shorter successes has built my confidence and I'm working on my novels again.

Good luck in your writing! There's also lots of publication opportunities for flash fiction, so it may offer good opportunities to work with professional editors who give great feedback.

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DLM said...

So glad Janet focused on the ACCOMPLISHMENT here, the success - which is a writer identifying and really committing to dealing with an issue. How many writers never do that, never get past the composition book they keep in the back of the closet? It's a powerful moment (or series of them!) when you learn, grow, improve.

So huzzah, to OP! That really is a huge hurdle; may you find the run beyond it freeing and fast.

An analogue to plotting issues is TENSION issues. As a histfic author, my plots are to some extent "there" when I begin. Writing about actual people, the basic facts are what inspire me in the first place, so I know where they're going.

Making it vital for a reader to want to get there? Damn. That's hard.

An agent once asked me "why are you telling this story?" and I was only able to get as far as "I mean, it's fascinating right on the face of it! Isn't it? Lookit, lookit!" (well, or something not quite on those lines).

If you don't know why a story is fascinating, nobody else will. Without the "what happens next!?" TENSION to draw readers along: no readers. As Jennifer said! WHEN WILL THEY KISS ...

Colin Smith said...

Let me start by saying, to Emily's comment, if I had an agent tell me, "I... I don't think this will sell. There are flaws... but there's something about your writing I can't pass up"--I would take that. Absolutely! I'd sign up with that agent in a heartbeat. :D

Here's why. Have you thought about how much revision goes into debut novels? We often get to the end of novels shaking our heads and marveling at the genius involved in composing such masterpieces, despairing of our own meager efforts. And no doubt there is genius there. What we forget is when those novels first crossed their agents' desks, they were most likely hot messes, and only became the works of art they are through much back and forth between agent, editor, and author. In the case of debut novels, there would have been beta readers and possibly professional editors involved, too. Agents don't just take on projects that are ready to sell. They take on writers they want to work with, and projects that they think worthy of the effort needed to make them shine.

Opie: Here's what I recommend. Take a break. Unless there's more to your story than your saying, you have time to reflect and experiment. Try some different styles. Write some flash fiction, or short stories. Maybe try "pantsing" a novel. Then try writing a novel that is so well structured and plotted you could scale the scaffolding. Read books on both methods (Stephen King claims to be much more of a pantser, so ON WRITING would be the go-to book for that. Indeed, he advises not to worry about plot. He says regarding plot, "Life doesn't happen that way." Others would disagree with him, but at least hear him out).

What's evident is that you love to write. You now just need to either a) learn how to write what you want to write, or b) learn what kind of writing brings out the best of your skill set and gives you (as Janet says) the most joy.

All the very best to you! :)

Unknown said...

I love, love, love this! It's so great that this writer could take a step back and realize what they may or may not have been doing right, rather than blaming the agents that rejected them. How easy is it to just say "Ugh. They don't know talented writing!" and continue doing what you're doing? Change is hard sometimes, but it's so much easier when you can realize what mistakes you've been making. I wish this writer lots of success in the future!

Sherry Howard said...

I love this thread. There are so many resources for developing plot that are amazing for people who need help in that area. I think that is a very "learnable" skilll. John Truby has an excellent book with specific steps; written for screenwriters, it's a wonderful resource for writers. KM Weiland has a great resource, a workbook sold on Amazon, that allows you to fully develop your plot BEFORE you write. Your best support for story development, though, will be through other writers, so increase your range of writer friends: the more, the better!

If you love writing, you'll write. Writing doesn't equate to publishing in all cases. Each individual, as Susan Bonifant said, has to find his niche. It may not happen quickly, or ever in the way you expect. Follow your dreams, whatever they are, and don't give up.

Mister Furkles said...

Asimov wrote a guide to Shakespeare. He analyzes all of the plays and explains the basic plots and why each works. Used copies are only fifteen bucks but you may check it for free through the county library.

You might try taking a story you love and do two things. Summarize the story and identify why it works. Then pull the scenes apart and for each scene briefly describe the main event(s)and identify how they flow to make a story.

Seeing how a master builds something can help you figure out how to do it yourself.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

My daughter suffers related problem. She can write like nobody's business. But she doesn't quite know what to write about. Some day, it will come. For me, stories come easy. I struggle with voice (getting better but still) and I am dog slow churning out a manuscript. I am hoping NaNo helps.

If you love writing, keep doing it. The rest will come. No matter the talent, practice perfects the craft.

Timothy Lowe said...

I need this blog for my daily therapy! I feel for you, OP. We've all been there. I brought two chapters of a WIP that I've finished 29,000 words to a class I just took. Students loved it. Teacher ripped it apart. "Not buying the character conflict" - this is the whole foundation of the book!

Back to square one. Maybe I can save some of the work, but maybe not. Makes you really respect the final published products, for sure.

Good luck. Don't despair. Revel in Janet's peppy advice and find the will to find your way.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I don't have anything to add to all the terrific input for finding resources... But I do want to say that I continue to be inspired and uplifted by the remarkable kindness in this group. Which begins with Janet. The fact that someone who is struggling feels safe/comfortable enough to reach out to you, and you would take the time to offer such thoughtful advice is life changing. Couple that with allowing the rest of us to commiserate with the OP and rally together and shout a collective, "Onward!" Extraordinary.

OP: Something I've told myself for years... Find joy in the journey. Even when you're mucking stalls.

Susan said...

OP: I feel for you. Plot is not my forte. I tend to write quieter books in the literary fiction-vein that are heavy in character development--coming-of-age stories that could almost act as character studies. They each have stakes and events, but the focus is on the relationships and the characters' growth in relation to those stakes and events rather than the events themselves. It's what I love and, frankly, it's what I'm good at. Imagining high-concept plots, I am not.

And that's OK. I once despaired that I wasn't a more commercial writer, especially when that seems to be a focus these days. So I tried it out. I ghostwrote nine romantic thrillers, enfusing my strength in character development to a high-concept plot that was already sketched out. It was fun, and maybe I'll try my hand at it again someday, but it's not the kind of story I love or am particularly good at on my own. I don't view it as a failing anymore--I look at it as a different set of strengths.

Look at your own work. You've identified your weakness, now what are your strengths? Is the plot really the problem or are you trying to force a square peg into a round hole (i.e., maybe it's a matter of the type of book you're writing instead). No matter the issue, plots can be fixed. And there's a difference between sharing an idea outloud and working through the kinks when writing. Please don't let that discourage you.

Your stories still belong.

Cheryl said...

To the resources everyone's recommended I'll add Robert McKee's Story. That, and the screenwriting class I took with it, gave me my real breakthrough.

But these are mostly about structure. My real problem with plot, that I still struggle with, is creativity and the unexpected. Two things are working for me right now:

1) Filling out all those character questionnaires. I'm a discovery writer, mostly, so I always brushed them off. But then I found one that asked things like "What does he have in his pockets?" "What's the most extreme thing she will do to get what she wants, and where does she draw the line?"

It's kind of amazing what that can do for plot. It wasn't until I realized that my one character carries a valuable family heirloom with him everywhere that I also realized he could lose it at a crucial moment, increasing tension.

2) Two phrases: YES, BUT/NO, AND. Did that work? Yes, but it triggered this other thing. No, and it made things worse.

(By the way, there's an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that is a masterclass in this technique. It's called Civil Defense and should be on Netflix.)

Dena Pawling said...

I'm not a born plotter. Here's what helped me: Read as many books as you can about story structure. Plot points, rising action, etc. Then, read as many books as you can in the genre you like/write. Read them twice. The first time like a reader. Make notes on what you liked and didn't like, which parts were exciting and which were dull, twists. Etc. Then read them a second time with a story structure outline in front of you. Note what happened for the inciting incident, plot points, pinch points, climax, how the twist was set up, etc. Doing this for movies is easier because movies are usually much more structured and easier to see the points [and KM Weiland has an entire data base if you get stuck but that doesn't help you do it yourself]. This helped me see how other writers made it work, and was REALLY helpful for me.

Good luck.

Susan said...

I just want to send a shout out to this community and especially Janet while I have the opportunity, and now seems appropriate.

When I was first starting out, I lamented that my books didn't belong anywhere because what/how I write seemed so vastly different from what's wanted by the market, and the fact that I (happily) indie publish seemed like another strike against me. Even coming here, I was intimidated because what value could I possibly add?

But this community is one of the best I've ever seen. Not only are you all welcoming of everyone, but you're the most inspiring group of people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. You remind me daily of the joy of writing--not only that, but you help me believe that there's a place for me. There's a place for all of us.

So just a quick thank you to let you all know I appreciate you. And Janet: "Failure is stopping before you find the joy." That one I'm especially grateful for. It's getting a permanent place on the fridge.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This post is so encouraging, and definitely marks a bright spot on my morning. My particular WIP has been a monster from halfway through the first draft. I've finally gotten to the point where I think I can write a whole draft with the plot ironed out. So I'm writing as much as I can, but the writing itself is not stellar because I'm in a rush. I keep trying to remind myself that I can polish it later, but it's hard not to feel like a failure when I read over the previous day's (subpar) writing.

And yet, for the first time in six years, I'm really having fun with the story. Writing is bringing me joy and springing me out of bed every morning at 4:30 so I can get my daily word count done before work. That's a feeling I wouldn't trade for anything.

Cheryl said...

Oh! Something else I was going to mention.

It could be that the story doesn't work because you're trying too hard to put in plot. Plot should come organically from the characters, not feel tacked on just to give the characters something to do. If at any point you say to yourself "something should happen here" remember that the action should flow from what came before, not just be a random guy with a gun.

And if it is a random guy with a gun? Then everything that happens after should echo with the memory of that guy with the gun.

It's one continuous story, not a series of vignettes.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well, today is Reider bumper sticker day. So much to inspire us all.
Hey, OP I ain't giving up yet and you should'nt either.
Joy. Joy? Where the hell is joy? Oh, here it is right here, right now.

Craig F said...

Read up on as much about plotting as you can. Then take the next step. Get out into the real world and take a look around. If you have to you can volunteer at either a soup kitchen or an abuse center and learn a little of the real stories that are out there. It will give both a base to work from and a sounding board to test your plotting against.

The best plots touch something in the reader. Even if it is set 200 centuries in the future or at the death of the stone age. There is a bit of the pathos of being human that must be exposed. That will never change for us.

I write an open outline and then let the story fill it in. Sometimes it works great and sometimes I miss the essence of the plot too. You can't always hit a home run no matter how good your coach.

nightsmusic said...

A few links that might help you:

Writer's Digest Novel Blueprint

Novel Writing: How To Plot A Novel

Chuck Wendig - 25 Ways

I know, you've probably Googled things until you're blue, but they're good resources and give you templates and ideas. For every action, there's a reaction. I don't plot out anything, I don't outline (because then, I've written the book and can't seem to continue with it), I'm a pantser, definitely not a plotter. But I know how the story starts and I know how it ends. Those are the two biggest things, to me, that you have to have. If you don't know those, or are constantly changing the end to fit the story, you need to start over or figure out why you have to keep changing the ending.

Andrea St. Amand said...

I've felt the same way. And books on writing are great. Save the Cat is very, very good and can be used for novels BUT nothing beats a teacher! And not a generalized class, but someone who is reading your work every week and giving you individualized feedback. I've just completed a 10-week individual tutorial through The Writers Studio, focusing on my novel (after talking with The Shark Janet at ThrillerFest on how to restructure and refocus it and realizing I couldn't do it on my own - because of that pesky plot thing). I've learned more about plotting and storytelling and writing with that feedback than I've ever learned struggling on my own. It was expensive, but worth it because what I learned I will take with me for all future projects.

Joseph S. said...

Good Question today
Good answer, too.

I live and die on a book by James Scott Bell called “Conflict and Suspense.” I also have one of his I have not opened (but should) titled “Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish.” Maybe that book can help the original poster.

As far as needing joy, remember the immortal words of Harry Nilsson:

Joy to the world was a beautiful girl
But to me Joy meant only sorrow

C M said...

This writer might benefit from the book The Plot Whisperer. I read it & it was very helpful.

Adib Khorram said...

Cheryl, I too love Robert McKee's STORY.

And Deep Space Nine has a ton of exemplary episodes as regards story structure.

"In the Pale Moonlight" remains my favorite episode.

Julie Weathers said...

Julie here.

We'll see if I can post on this purloined computer. I'm in North Dakota on another Julie adventure and living proof that no matter how well you plot everything out ahead of time, life will still throw you a curve ball and make things interesting. When your army officer lawyer says, "Well, I've never had anything like that happen before," you know it's been a Julie event.

Anyway, it makes for good stories later...I suppose. On the plus side, it makes me think my very odd twist in the new opening chapter of Rain Crow isn't so odd after all.

To the OP. I do agree somewhat with the sentiment that some people are born storytellers. There's just a genetic disposition. That's what makes great horse traders.

That doesn't mean your deficiency can't be improved. You've already had professionals tell you your writing is lovely and that is huge, huge I tell you. It doesn't matter how well plotted a story is if the writing is bad or boring.

I've told the story before, but it bears repeating. Poco Bueno, who became an iconic Quarter Horse cutting horse and cutting horse sire, was a mediocre rope horse. It took a trainer watching him and another stallion in training to realize the two horses weren't being utilized to their natural abilities. He swapped out training and Poco Bueno went on to fame as did the other stallion.

You just need to hone the plotting skills. Reading, as others have said helps. There are a lot of proven authors who specialize in plotting books or commentary. I think Bob Mayer has some talks on youtube about plotting.

You also have to find the trainer, as with Poco Bueno's trainer, who works for you. Not everyone's advice will be the right advice. Just because it looks like a horseshoe doesn't mean it's going to fit that horse.

You have to celebrate your victory and move on to the next success, which will be conquering the Plot Rot.

Beth Carpenter said...

I have nothing to add to the excellent advice above. I hope you find your joy, OP, and all of us.

Unknown said...

Beautiful post and beautiful response. One observation, OP, is that your post itself is a story that was clearly affecting to a lot of us here.

I took two introductory improv classes a few years before I start writing fiction seriously. In retrospect, I think they have helped me tremendously. Improv showed me how story can emerge spontaneously when there is an attitude of openness and not trying to "steer" the action or create anything special.

Mary said...

I could totally have written this response. Except for the ghostwriting. I think there is a place for our kind of novels. Even though mine didn't go off the charts I still love it.

Shelley Souza said...

Janet Reid on story and plot

Emily Lowrey writes: “voice is the golden egg! I think that's the think you either have our you don't."

A writer's voice is the golden egg. And like the golden goose’s egg, a writer's voice comes from the writer. There’s no such thing as you either have voice or you don’t. Voice is who we are, so how can any writer not have one? Some people may choose a way other than by writing to express their voice. Those people have voice to the exact same degree as a writer. Some writers may find their voice better suited to short story than to novel and vice versa or in other forms.

Follow your voice and you will figure out how to plot. Failing to understand usual methods of plotting may be your subconscious telling you that you’re a square peg trying to fit yourself into a round hole. (And, by the way, every writer's plot has holes until they're fixed--by the writer, an agent, an editor, a ten-year old child.)

Something rarely said (perhaps because it’s assumed) is that you need to know your story before you can properly utilise plot structure. You can’t use any plotting methodology as a reliable measure of hole-free structure, until you know your story. Whether you find that by writing out your story (pantser style), or by asking what if questions, or by thinking it all the way through like Muriel Spark before you write a single word, however you find it is up to you.

This year's Man Booker winner Paul Beatty said he kept writing after "[a teacher] told me I should quit writing because I would never be any good at it".

Claire Bobrow said...

Theresa: "In the Land of Good Advice, this is spectacular."

Agree, agree, agree! The comments today have reached the stratosphere. Thank you all for sharing such great resources. As Ben & Jerry would say, they've made "A Swirled of Difference."

OP - best of luck and thank you for posting!

Adele said...

When I first started out, I made friends with a couple of other women at a writing group, and we started a club. Most critique groups are about writing skills - ours was about plot. We'd get together once a month or so, (three or four of us - more than that doesn't work so well) and spend the evening either discussing plots - the plots of our novels, the plots of movies we'd seen - or we'd plot a new novel from scratch, just for fun. Sometimes one member would describe the plot of her book, and the others would point out any holes and then we'd all discuss ways to fix it. We all read writing skills books, and would read out any good bits we found. Eventually the group disbanded, but we are still in touch and if anyone has a plot problem they'll send it out to the group.

Panda in Chief said...

At the risk of getting sent to Carkoon for making a promotional suggestion, a couple of years ago a writer friend of mine produced a set of cards that she had been using in her teaching for a number of years. They are not your usual set of prompt cards, meaning they don't suggest story ideas , but more like pschological prompts. They have bailed me out several times, when I was stumped as to where my story went next.

There are cards that read things like: Trust the wrong person: Lose the prize possession. There is also a booklet that gives you both explanations of each prompt, as well as creativity coaching interpretations.

Anyway, the cards are called Fiction Magic and they are available from her website,

Colin Smith said...

I was about to linkify the links here, but then I remembered we have a page for Helpful Writing Links in the Treasure Chest, so I'll just add the new links there. Ms. Weiland's blog is already listed.

abnormalalien said...

I love these posts; they're so encouraging.

Nom de plume said...

OP: I think being able to identify an issue with your writing and being willing to improve upon it is an achievement in itself. I wouldn’t give up without trying your hardest to address learning to plot.

About a year ago I came to the realization that the last novel I had written had pacing problems. I was frustrated because I tried to fix it and couldn’t. I spent several months reading books in my genre and paying close attention to how they were paced (when did inciting incident occur? when did the first act end?). Still couldn’t fix that original novel, so I wrote a new one, focused on improving pace.

Keep trying and have fun experimenting!

Sarah said...

I loved this post so much- from OP's honesty and determination to Janet's reply! I'll only add something that I don't think has come up yet in comments.

I hit a similar spot in my writing. I had a novel I'd worked on for years-- and the dawning realization that while my wordsmithing was strong, my ability to structure a novel needed serious help.

Typically, we don't get feedback about structure at conferences. We can't with folks looking at the first 15 pages. And while I found books on plot helpful, I still didn't always see how to apply it to MY writing.

So you might want to consider whole novel workshops or mentorships that pair you with someone. (I have great resources for children's writers!) I know it helped me to have someone who knew what they were talking about give specific feedback. I think there are also workshops where they help you plot a novel. And there are almost always scholarships to help you pay for them. Believe me, I needed them.

The whole-novel attention did help. My debut was published in 2015, and I sold my second this April.

All the best to you, OP! I know you have wonderful things ahead.

Ardenwolfe said...

Writing toward publication ain't for the weak-willed. That's for sure. But knowing what's wrong, and why you're getting rejections, is a thousand times better than not knowing and hearing dead silence.

It's a harsh reality, but it seems sometimes it's all about talent, persistence, and luck . . . and not in that order either.

Lennon Faris said...

I will have to read through comments later - but OP, the nuts and bolts aspect can definitely be taught as much as any other part of writing a book. Someone can even look at your book and tell you how to fix that - but it's harder for someone to tell you how to fix characters, or voice. So count your blessings and maybe get your 10 yr old to co-write something with you :P Seriously, she sounds smart!

Steve Stubbs said...


Steven King wrote five novels before CARRIE. That’s called paying your dues. He has done rather well since then.

Ten years is about right to learn to write.

Plotting is quite simple. (1) Get your character p a tree,(2) throw rocks at the character, (3) get the character back down out of the tree. The problem is getting a complete stranger who does not know you and could not care less to care more. A lot more.

You could try the F. Scott Fitzgerald approach. Watch a movie on DVD. Take notes on every scene. Study the resulting outline., Just be sure it is a good movie. I saw one the other day called THE WORDS that was brilliantly acted and utterly charming, but if there is a story there I can’t tell what it is. And THE WORDS is about a writer.

A variation on that is to outline someone else’s story and rewrite it from scratch starting from the outline. Just don’t ask the original writer to write a promo for his own book rewritten by you so you can pitch it to the same agent who repped it in the first place. No, no, no. This is a learning experience, not commercial product development.

Notice how authors use loops. In one scene character is seen to be a mean shot with a nine millimeter automatic. Ten scenes later character decides to conceal a nine millimeter automatic on a bookshelf in her home. Fifteen scenes after that, character grabs the thing and uses it to save her life. Put enough tension into that last scene and it works. You want the reader to know that gun is there before character’s life is threatened. You want reader gasping for breath as the character fights for her life. You want reader to breathe a sigh of relief as character grabs the gun and fires. Grab that reader by the throat and don’t let go until the last page.

Notice how authors use subplots. Dog chases character up a tree. Dog finally goes away, but is replaced by a mountain lion. This just is not that character’s day.

Notice sentence pacing. Short sentences for fast moving scenes. Like this.

Critics who point out plot holes are giving you a gift. Plot holes are like pot holes. They exist to be filled. You don’t get a Pot Hole Digger (PhD) in writing. You get a PhF.

Finally if you wonder what the point is, remember something Robert F Kennedy once said. He was paraphrasing something George Bernard Shaw said, but Kennedy said it better.

“Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”

Kate Larkindale said...

Plot is hard! It's where I always struggle too. My books tend to be very character driven, and I have to follow the characters where they want to go. And sometimes they don't want to go where I've planned for them to end up….

Unknown said...

OP, I've got the same problem - just blogged about my mushy middles and how even pros fall into that trap.

Nadre mentioned StoryWonk, which is GREAT. I also heartily recommend Jennifer Crusie's series of blog posts on structure (aimed at romance but works for any kind of story) here and her blogging that analyzes TV shows, because she does a great job of showing what does and doesn't work in a story. Her "conflict box" thing is one of the most useful techniques I've seen for making sure a plot hangs together--and it's based entirely in character, which might help short-circuit your issue (it helped me immeasuraby!).

You may want to consider a class on literary analysis (especially of short stories). I've found that after 11 years of teaching high-school English, I've gotten great at seeing the mechanics of great literature (because I've been reading and rereading it and pulling it apart and showing it to others).

I work with somebody who's great at description but not much on plot or dialog; we help fill in each other's weaknesses. Two heads are better than one--and working with her makes my writing stronger for solo projects!

Take heart: plotting, too, is a skill that can be learned! Lots of people have said it upthread already, but it can be practiced - it can be learned - it can be improved upon!

Elaine A said...

So many wonderful things have already been said. I would only like to encourage the OP, if you decide to keep going on novels, not to give up if the first 5...10...15 plotting resources don't work for you. Like others, I've scoured acres of plot advice, but it was only when I happened on the *one* that spooned with the way my brain works that the metaphorical windows lit up. Maybe it was just a tipping point of absorbing so much over time, or maybe it really was The One For Me. I wish you all luck in finding yours.

Whatever you decide, joy first. Such great, great advice.

RachelErin said...

One of my favorite plotting guides is the Snowflake method. I don't follow it exactly (I'm not quite that much of an engineer), but I love the alternation of synopsis with character development. I do all the steps out of order, which I only mention to show that all these 'methods' can be combined and modified for the way your mind works and the kind of story you're writing.

Another piece of advice I found really useful, was to make a list of about ten books or movies you wish you had written, and look for the themes, techniques, and structures they use. A customized, curated, set of analyses.

Another quirky website is readingwithavengeance. She has a crazy mind for plot holes, dropped threads, and inconsistencies. Most people won't agree with all her comments (she also swears a lot, and is sensitive to unconscious cultural misogyny/racism, which I find fascinating, but others may skim). She analyzes some best sellers, sort of like query shark for YA fantasy story structure. But whether I agree with her or not, she gets me looking at story logic and plot in a different and very productive way.

Good luck finding your bliss!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I struggle with plotting and the logic behind it all as well. I'm using Lisa Cron's Story Genius book, and it is helping tremendously. She has a chapter in there called "Story Logic: Making Sure Each 'What' Has a 'Why'."

The plot for this year's NaNo ms is much more solid than a lot of my other attempts. It still has some holes, but at least they're not big enough to fall into. Fingers crossed....

Karen McCoy said...

Such a lovely piece of encouragement today. Finding joy is probably the most important thing we can do--along with giving joy to others.

Save the Cat was helpful to me, but I also highly recommend Rock Your Plot for overall structure. I use it to outline my bigger projects and it's very helpful for keeping things on track.

Good luck, Opie!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that so many people are talking about plot and structure, but only a couple have mentioned conflict, and then only briefly. Conflict is hard to write. It goes against our natural tendencies to be kind and to smooth things over.

Plot is just what happens while resolving conflict. But conflict is fuel for a story.

Look, here's Mary, she's our heroine. She works hard and struggles and at the end of the story is happy.
Well, who cares? What does Mary want?
Mary wants the golden egg [goal], so she works hard and struggles, gets the golden egg and is happy.
So, what, if she doesn't get it she's sad? Does she decide a silver pear would make her just as happy and gets that instead?
No, Mary needs that golden egg or her little sister will die [motivation/consequence], so she works hard and struggles, gets the golden egg and saves her sister's life and is happy.
Yay, Mary.
Still, I'm sort of bored.

Oh, but here's Linda, our antagonist. Linda wants that golden egg too and she's going to work hard and struggle to get the egg before Mary can, and be happy.
OK, but why? What's the deal with Linda, does she just want to be happy, or does she have a dying sister too?
No, Linda needs the golden egg so she can destroy it [goal]. What Mary doesn't know is that there used to be many golden eggs and this is the last one and if Linda doesn't find it and destroy it, her empire will crumble and she will die a hideous death [motivation/consequence]. Linda is strong and powerful and experienced, and she knows exactly how she's going to find this last golden egg before Mary does [conflict] and she will be triumphant.

Boy, has Mary got her work cut out for her. She needs to figure out how to stop Linda and make her own plan. Linda is stronger, so Mary will fail and reassess and adjust a few times and get stronger too [plot]. Now I'm worried and pulling for Mary (or maybe Linda, who knows) and I'm turning pages faster to find out what happens and who wins.

Do you see how, with the proper setup of goal and motivation and conflict, the plot sort of writes itself? But you need all three for a story to be compelling.

Deb Dixon wrote a simple yet brilliant book about this called, fittingly, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

Deb gave a presentation to my RWA chapter on this topic, years ago, and it was such a big lightbulb moment for me, I sat in the car with my mind reeling for a half hour before I could even drive home. These days, I tend to forget that not everyone knows about it. I highly recommend her book.

Sorry to be so long-winded. Hope that was helpful for someone.

OP, from what I've heard, five novels and ten years of rejection sounds just about normal. You're not alone in that. Best of luck to you.

[Janet, good thing you didn't, ahem, mention that novel.]

roadkills-r-us said...

I'll join the chorus singing the praises of Janet and this community!
I'll also second nearly everything said above, especially Robert's note on asking your 10 y/o and Colin's advice to try: All. The. Methods. Even if you already know exactly who you are as a writer, try everything once.
Why is my reading list a half mile longer than it was before I read the comments?

Random, related note: Marvel comics (among others) have always had plot holes. But they steadily built a fan base over time, and eventually grew huge. The movies and TV/net series? Plenty of plot holes- if you tend to watch them critically (I just enjoy the ride, but have friends who cannot do that). They seem to be doing fine.

I'm certainly not encouraging plot holes. I'm just pointing out that they are fairly common, and not the end of the world.

Brigid said...

OP, this is sort of a funny approach, but have you turned your hand to retellings? Fairy tales are having a moment (and I love them dearly), but lots of old stories could be retold, and then the plot is taken care of. It's the telling that needs to shine, and you can make it shine.

Unknown said...

I'm a lurker but had to chime in. This was me for ten years! And then a writing friend discovered Larry Brooks' Story Engineering, and to use story structure terms, it was my midpoint. It changed everything about my writing. I followed that up with K.M. Weiland's Story Structure, book on outlining, and her character arc series (which just came out as its own book). I'm still working on plotting my new WIP, but I finally have hope that the structure is coming out right for once.

Janet mentioned coaching; Larry Brooks also offers coaching service, starting with your concept and premise. That one is only $80, and while his response time is similar to Janet's, I found that his feedback from just a few words about my concept and premise exposed a real problem with my story that helped me to rework the entire rest of the plot so that it's much improved. The next steps are more expensive (possibly too expensive for me), but if that gets to be too much, there are a lot of free-lance editors out there who would be willing to help you find plot holes for a reasonable price. K.M. Weiland has a list.

Best of luck!

Brittany said...

Late to the party as usual, but a few more recommendations:

I love Your Screenplay Sucks! by William M. Akers. I always read it (well, at least the first half) before starting a novel and it usually illuminates some issue I hadn't considered.

Working with a developmental editor might be good for you, especially if you have a draft you can give them. They can give you specific suggestions for how to strengthen your plot.

Much of what I know about plot and story structure, I learned from Be warned that you will lose entire weeks of your life to that site, but many of the pages are extraordinarily insightful. They don't just discuss the trope, but how it connects to other tropes, what purpose it serves in the story, how it plays into genre expectations, and so on. Very enlightening.

You don't need to give up noveling, but you might want to change genres. Some (like mystery and thriller) are very plot-oriented, while in other genres (like lit fic) plot frequently takes a back seat to language and character development. If you've enjoyed books where not a whole lot "happens," that might be the lane you want.

Jessica said...

I literally cried while reading this. I cried for the author who poured out his/her heart here, and for the lovely encouragement from Janet. Good, luck, author.