Where my writing has issues, and where my experience has shown most beginning writers (those of us who have only 2 or 3, 300+ page novels under our belts) also have trouble, is in the “middle” – the meat of our stories, the plotting, characterization and world-building. Knowing the obstacles my characters will face, and interweaving multiple conflicts into the story, is frequently my biggest challenge. I never want my story to move in a straight line – it has to zig and zag, duck and weave -- without losing my reader.
Nailing the first 10 pages is – well, it’s not easy, certainly. I have to remind myself to not bury my lede. But it’s not nearly as hard as nailing the pacing of the rising action. So I’ve turned to plotting.
I learn by doing, specifically imitating. I find examples of books with plots I love (they make my toes tingle!) and then I dissect them. I take them apart and figure out what makes them work. In post-modern terms, I deconstruct them, identifying when and why the author includes specific elements. Then I imitate, and I’m shameless about it, at least at the start, because I know by the time I’m finished, it will be all mine – my characters, my plot, my world. Imitation serves as my starting point.
I’m in the process of plotting my next book. I started with the murder. I have no intention of ever publishing this “writing.” But, as it all takes place off the page, I felt I had to be absolutely certain of what happened, when, and by whom, and most importantly, why, before tackling the plotting of how my MC unravels this complicated web.
I drew a street map of the murder and the sequence of events. It’s only got a few shapes on it (squares for houses, arrows for streets, rectangles for cars / trucks) because anyone who knows me knows I couldn’t draw myself out of a box. It's a tool for me to use as I write.
I imagine that thriller, spy, and mystery genre writers plot extensively, because how else can your MC discover the sprinkled clues, or the author build suspense in the text, if the author doesn’t know what’s coming? Or the author is, as s/he’s banging on the keyboard, figuring out what makes a character tick?
There are, however, those who write entirely by their "pants." They don’t have a plan, they just start with a good idea and explore it. I believe this is equally important to do. For me, it’s my world-building stage, in which I’m trying out combos of characters, objects, histories, motivations, and societal norms to see how they fit together (or don’t). Like the murder map, it informs my writing and allows me to cherry-pick what works best, but I end up cutting most of it.
When I don't do either of these things -- improvise and plot -- my writing falls flat.