Monday, February 1, 2016

week #4 Plot

A few days ago I had the great pleasure of visiting the new Broad Museum downtown and it got me thinking about the connection between perspective and plot. I was staring at these colorful orbs by Jeff Koons, appreciating how abstract they were.

But when I walked around to the other side of the exhibit, I realized they weren’t abstract at all, they were tulips. It completely changed the way I looked at the work of art.

I think this related to novel writing, in the sense that when it comes time to plot out your writing, you need to know your own perspective. What are you ultimately trying to say in your work? Once you figure out what you are trying to say as a writer, you can move on to what your characters are trying to say. Are they reinforcing what you’re trying to say? Opposing it? Saying it in a different way? Once you figure out your perspective, you’re ready to plot.

In last week’s blog entry, I talked a bit about the importance of characterization in writing. Today, I’m going to focus on plot.

I have to say, that something has changed in the way I approach plot with my new project compared to how I’ve written novels in the past.

Previously, I’ve done a very organized job of plotting out my entire novel before I begin writing. It’s not to say that this plan won’t change once I begin writing (it always changes) but I have a linear sense of how it will all take shape. This time around and for the first time, I’m writing more towards the energy of the story. That is to say, I’m following the characters and writing in a nonlinear fashion. As I’m doing this, I’m piecing together these plot points into a linear fashion.

No matter which method you use to write, when it’s all said and done, you will have a story with a beginning, a middle and an end (the middle is always the muddiest bit to write.)

In its most simplistic terms, plot is rising action that leads to a climax and then is followed by falling action. (Think in terms of the shape of a triangle, the apex being the moment of climax) but when you’re writing something 200, 300, 400 + pages, getting this action to up the ante with each chapter can be challenging.

I like to think of plot as a bunch of mini plot triangles, strung together, all with their own moments of rising action, climax and falling action.

If your story is essentially about one character, this can be easier to organize. My current novel explores three different characters, with distinct story lines, so I have to stay vigilant about how I keep track of their information and with what happens to them in each chapter.

Even though I didn’t complete the draft of my novel in a linear fashion, I did spend a long time plotting everything out ahead of time. For me, I write faster when I know where I’m going.

There are many methods one can use in order to plot out their work. I would argue they all have one thing in common – the notion of starting a novel with an idea and expanding outward. So how can this help you with your work?

1.         In one sentence, write down what your novel is about.
2.         Expand this into three well-crafted sentences.
3.         Expand this into one paragraph.
4.         Expand this into one full page adding important plot details.
5.         You can keep expanding outward, perhaps writing a full page per chapter on your book.

Before you know it, you’ll have a complete and detailed outline of what you want to happen in the novel. Here’s where you can see where the holes are, what questions need to be answered, what concepts need research, where your characters perhaps lie flat.

There are many online tools that can help you plot your novel. Feel free to check them out!

Try this Plotting Worksheet from Annie Neugebauer  

There’s an endless supply of books for writers all geared around how to plot a novel. My favorite of these books is actually geared towards screenwriters, but can certainly be applied to a novel. It’s Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which takes you step by step through plotting out your story.

Want more writing tips? Come join us at the Annenberg Beach House for a night of Unpacking the Elusive Writing Process

Join authors Zsuzsi Gartner, Matthew Specktor, Andrea Quaid and Jennifer Caloyeras as discuss and take questions about their various writing strategies. On the page how do we get from A to Z? How do different mediums and platforms affect the writing process? Do different projects merit different approaches? Can the process of writing be taught? 
Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of All the Anxious Girls on Earth, and editor of Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her most recent book, Better Living through Plastic Explosives, was a 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist. She is the founding director of Writers Adventure Camp at The Point in Whistler, B.C.She’s at work on a novel.

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book about the motion picture The Sting. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and, among other publications. He was a senior editor and founding member of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Andrea Quaid is co-editor of Acts + Encounters, a collection of works about experimental writing and community. Recent critical and creative publications include the American Book Review, BOMBlog, Jacket2, Lana Turner, LIT and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches in Bard College’s MAT Program (Los Angeles) and Language and Thinking Program (New York) as well as California Institute of the Arts. Currently, she is writing a book on contemporary experimental women’s writing and the literary epic.
Jennifer Caloyeras is the 2016 Writer-in-Residence at the Beach House, and will be working on a novel in the Marion Davies Guest House from 1/12/16-3/15/16. Her most recent novel, Strays, is for young adults and explores an incarcerated teen's relationship with a pit bull. Caloyeras' short fiction has appeared in Booth, Storm Cellar and other literary magazines. She holds a M.A. in English from Cal State Los Angeles and a M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Jennifer’s current project is her first adult novel – a mixture of humor and pathos – that explores a mother’s journey with her transgendered six-year-old daughter, and the weight of expectations parents place on their children. She will share her work with three public events, a weekly blog, and open office hours throughout her tenure (schedule below). Her website:

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