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Plot: Wing It or Plan Every Step?

In the first idea that I had for the novel I am currently writing - which, admittedly, was when I was twelve - the only things I knew about my MC's personality were that she was a girl and she was 'feisty'. And evidently, I thought that was enough to go on.

Surprise, surprise: It wasn't.

Now, she is only the most main of my three main characters, rather than the only one. Her name is Taika and I love her. While she is most definitely 'feisty', she has so much more to her than that now. It's interesting to contrast this to when she first burst into my brain and refused to leave me alone. She was unrealistic, extremely two-dimensional and quickly gave up her spunk to become bland and forgettable. Needless to say, I didn't know her particularly well before I began writing with her. I guess I either thought she was fine how she was or that her well thought through character arc would just sort of come as I wrote. Given the fact that I am currently wrapping up a re-write of the entire novel, I think it's safe to say that this approach didn't work out too well.

And surely the same goes for plot, right? Well, I'm not sure. In the title, I asked the question, 'Wing it or plan every step?' That wasn't just to grab your attention, it's actually something I'm asking myself as I look to the future of my characters and the plot of the sequel that has to happen. As a disclaimer, I can't give you a formula for the perfect plot creation strategy that will work for everyone, but I can tell you what has worked for me and what I'm willing to try, and it may not be exactly what you expect, having read the first three paragraphs.

As I've implied, to describe the plan I had for my book as skeletal would have been an undeserved compliment. I had a vague starting point, a couple of things I knew were going to happen sometime, a few characters, a villain and a happy ending. The fact that I had no idea how they would get to that ending did nothing to put me off. I looked at writing as if it were fundamentally the same as reading, except that it took a whole lot longer.

It was a fun way to go about it, I must admit. I never knew what was coming, so I just let it surprise me as much as it surprised my characters. I also never knew who would end up being important to the plot. So, when two new characters suddenly popped up and muscled their way into the story, I welcomed them with open arms. Versions of them are still very significant in the book today. 

But there were definite drawbacks. I spent a lot of time and effort on scenes that ended up being totally useless. I wrote an entire draft that I have now almost finished rewriting because it was disorganised, unrealistic and featured almost no believable characters at all. I deleted entire plot threads that I had abandoned because I basically just forgot about them. But it wasn't just inefficient, it was also difficult. I would just sit down at my computer and hope inspiration would strike. This sometimes led to weeks of feeling like my creativity had dried up or just not working on it because I had no idea what would happen next.

Now, of course, I had ideas and notes and things, but I never planned anything out fully. I liked the feeling of writing an organic scene that wasn't aiming for anything much in particular. I liked allowing the characters to take the wheel and push the plot along instead of railroading them onto a plot I'd planned in advance. I liked reading back over a scene and realising that it was good solely because I gave myself the freedom to wing it.

And you know what? I still do. I love it. And that's why it's been such a challenge for me to rewrite the entire book. This time, I know what's coming. This time, I have to aim for a very specific target. It's hard for me, but I also know my characters better now. I know what they'll go through and can help them develop the way that I want them to, so that they'll tell the story I want to tell. And through this process, I've ended up with a much better book. That is, I'm locking up the first draft in the deep, dark recesses of my computer's memory, never again to be read by anyone, ever.

I've made several mentions of almost being done with the rewrite. By that I mean that I'm currently writing the last two or three chapters and I aim to be done in about a week. But then what? I think I kind of want to give this book a bit of a rest, so I can come back to it and edit it with a fresh eye in a few months. And what will I do in the meantime? Plot. As much as I appreciate the improvements in this draft over the original, I never want to totally rewrite a whole novel again. I'm going to spend my time thinking through a logical plot for the sequel, planning the character development and going all-out with world building. But I will never plan out a scene. That's where I draw the line. I need to give myself guidelines, but my characters have to do the hard work of actually getting where they need to go. I will also stay flexible with the plot I've outlined, just in case something comes up that I didn't expect.

So there, you go: my natural tendency is to wing it entirely, but I'm going to practice discipline and plot it out first, then let my characters make each scene believable. That is, if I manage to stick to my plan for more than a chapter and a half. We'll see how it goes.

- Jo
Soli Deo Gloria


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