Three Dirty Birds Talk about Plotting (Again!)

Back from our spring hiatus, the Three Dirty Birds are pecking away at Libbie Hawker’s Take Your Pants Off! and discussing her plot signposts.

Zoe: I almost didn’t want the stuff on character arc and theme to end. I was having fun!

Kate: True. Once I started getting into the meat of plotting out the specific events of the story, I felt my pace slowing down. And I’m still either not using it correctly, or it isn’t something that is going to work after all. Though the first half of the book was great! And I will totally keep using that part. Maybe I just need more practice.

Zoe: The first half alone was worth $2.99. (Or more.)

Kate: If she brings this out in paperback, I’m buying a hard copy.

Zoe: Me too. So as we get into plotting, Libbie introduces her own set of beats, some of them like beats in other guides, some a little different. But they’re still pretty much the same concept. (She calls them “plot headings” as opposed to beats, which I kind of liked because it made me feel a little less frantic. Semantics, yo.)

Kate: It’s all about the psychology.

Ana: That is a big part. Especially since I’m always trying to beat my own laziness and the fear of the blank document. Which is also only psychological. I like when plotting doesn’t seem or feel like work.

Zoe: I think that’s what I like about the term “plot headings”—”headings” implies that you’re going to put stuff under them, so just by typing the headings, you’ve already gotten started.

Kate: Yes, it’s very easy to sit down and tackle one when you think of it that way. Actually filling in the headings, though, I found considerably more difficult. That, I think, comes down to my process in developing stories.

Zoe: It may be, Kate, that you need your own set of headings for the types of signposts you tend to work around.

Ana: I know I’m trying to change/adjust some of them for me.

Kate: It’s not even that, I think. I’ll tell you a story. 🙂 This weekend, I sat down and fleshed out a lovely plot for a story to please The Editor in Question. The plot worked, everything fell into place, logic, logic, logic, feelz. I am no more than 325 words into it and it’s not going to work. The plot was fine, but it won’t suit Loose Id. In fact, it probably won’t suit most publishers. (Except maybe Riptide.)

Ana: What’s wrong with it?

Kate: The two MC’s can’t actually get together in this story. Instead, they’re forced into round after round of sex with other people. The actual psychology of the story means that the original plan for it is broken, at least as a novel. As background, though, it works excellently. So now I have to replot, or rewrite, to try out the new idea. But I couldn’t see it in the plot I wrote, because it didn’t communicate the characters the way I needed to engage with them.

Zoe: The good news it only took you 325 of actual writing to get to that point?

Kate: Lol, yes. But it’s good to see that these are things that I need to do. I think my method of engaging with story isn’t compatible with pre-plotting, but I’m going to try finishing one, and then see what I can slot into the plot headings and go from there. It might work better for me as a post-check than a pre-plan.

Ana: I’m having some trouble pre-plotting my current story too. Now, the plotting thing worked fine with my last story I just finished for that writing event, but I noticed I didn’t try it there until I’d already spent some time writing that story. So now what I’m trying is I play around with my story for a week or so, and then try to fill out the plot headings after I’ve had some contact-time.

Zoe: Yeah, I was going to point out that you started mid-story…as did I. I haven’t had a chance to start an all-new story with Libbie’s book yet; I’m working on the second book that was already-in-progress right now. I can’t wait to get free and start a new one from scratch. I have the outlines started!

Kate: I think I’ll try that with this one. Later on, after I’ve done my obligatory words getting my fireman into his relationship, I’ll start the first chapter of the one for She Who Must Be Obeyed and see if that shakes loose anything. Kind of tempted to write out the heading on a whiteboard, and fill them in as the story makes itself known to me.

Zoe: That sounds like an interesting experiment.

Like Ana, I’ve been changing the plot headings a bit to fit better with the way I write. And of course as Libbie says in the book some of the plot headings happen in the same scene, or in a different order than she lists, and I try to stay cognizant of that flexibility.

Kate: I try to picture them on an actual story arc, like a curve that starts low, has a high point, then ends a little lower.

Zoe: I love Libbie’s reminder that as you build your plot outline, you can only use bricks from the work you did in the first part: character arc, theme, the Story Core. (I have a feeling I still have stuff that doesn’t really need to be in my book, but it helps nonetheless.)

Ana: With my last attempt at outlining a romance that way (my paranormal), I got rather far until I realized I didn’t have enough space to actually build my characters’ relationships. So, I’m not sure, maybe I need more/different beats added or another drive for goal / fail cycle. But I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet.

Kate: This outlining thing is very much a work in progress.

Zoe: Could it be that you need two outlines, one for the non-romantic plot and one for the romantic one? (I’m assuming there’s a non-romantic plot that’s taking up all your room.) I really got into doing three outlines for the main characters in Dead to the World. (I had to build a timeline to piece them together after, but it slotted fairly nicely.)

Ana: It could be. Because my character’s external goal here isn’t anything to do with romance.

Zoe: So you do have two plots, or at least a plot and a subplot. They’d have their own beats.

Kate: Don’t we always, though? I mean, there’s the character’s plot for their internal growth, but then there’s the external plot dealing with events. Sometimes they overlap, and you get elements affecting both plots from one scene or event, but I know–in my head, anyway–there’s a series of parallel lines where I store my plots.

Zoe: Yes, but if you have a non-romantic external goal and a romance goal…I think they’re both still external goals, so they don’t fit into one outline (necessarily) as well as the standard external/internal, which can be more tightly intertwined (you have to overcome the internal to achieve the external). Libbie didn’t really cover subplots. She needs to write a sequel.

Kate: Lol. Demanding authors.

Ana: I feel further experiments on this outline will have to be done.

Zoe: Can’t wait to hear how they go!

Kate: This is going to be fun.

Zoe: I did find that using Take Off Your Pants for Dead to the World got me finished more quickly than I think I would have otherwise, even with stopping for three days to do the three outlines. I wound up revising 22k words and writing another 40k in just 18 days. … I wish I could say the same for Ride the Devil, but for the past four days I’ve been avoiding touching that one. I think I might just be fatigued.

Kate: Honestly, I’m beginning to think KM Weiland might have hit something on the head in her book, but not what she planned. I keep coming back to her talking about how the story bounces around in her head for months or years before she’s ready to write it down. And I wonder if outlining can really only come when your brain has processed enough of the story internally to have the material necessary to support an outline. And I don’t mean it all has to be consciously, but that the act of putting the outline together accesses subconscious planning that you weren’t aware you were doing. Your brain making logical connections between things as you plot. Does that sound crazy?

Zoe: Not entirely. 🙂 I’m looking forward to putting it to the test because I do have an outline for a story that I came up with without spending weeks or more playing it in my head, and I stopped thinking about it when I had an outline I was happy with, so I’m interested in seeing how the writing goes. But I can’t start until I get Ride the Devil first-drafted and Dead to the World revised. (Which means I’ve been outlining even more stories, because my head is always working on stories when I’m supposed to be writing stories. How do I get to be an outline factory like James Patterson?)

Kate: *cough* hire people *cough*

Ana: I think it’s a pretty individual thing. I have this friend, he’s a real idea machine. He could outline any of my novels after a few sentences from me. Now, if he could write them, I don’t know, but I often have times where I’m sitting in front of an outline and just go ‘uh…. what now?” and I hit him up and he has like ten ideas for what could happen. Most of them good, too. Me, I need more time to work things out.

Kate: Everyone has different methods, which makes learning to outline and learning to write such a challenge. It’s part science, but mostly art, and for art you have to feel your way through until you find the method that works for you.

Zoe: Kate, have you had a chance to crack open Save the Cat yet?

Kate: I did! During the teenager’s birthday party, while they were in the pool. I like it. He’s blunt, and a lot of what he says makes perfect sense. It’s things I know about, but don’t always remember because I’m still learning. There’s some parts that are very obviously only for screenwriters, but a lot of it crosses over. I need to finish it, after I clear the decks of some of the day job stuff.

Zoe: I thought to ask because I had a crisis moment at the movie theater yesterday. We went to see Danny Collins, and it was an enjoyable movie, but during several scenes, I was so hugely aware that it was hitting its beats. I know on one level that most of the people in that theater weren’t feeling the beats hit as hard as I was, but at the same time I was all, “I DON’T WANT TO WRITE STORIES YOU CAN MAP OUT LIKE THAT!” It was an existential moment that was probably exacerbated by the fact that I’d run out of garlic parmesan french fries to shove in my mouth.

(Ana: Wait, you can eat fries IN the theater?!)

(Zoe: Oh yes. And drink beer…but you guys probably had that in Germany already.)

(Ana: Yes to the beer.)

(Kate: I need to move next to Zoe.)

Kate: I suspect part of the job of a writer is to hit those beats, but to disguise them cleverly enough that you don’t recognize them as beats. In some stories it’s okay–you know he has to save the cat, and you know he has to fail at least once, and it’s kind of a game to guess which character that’s important to him will be only threatened and which one will die–but it shouldn’t be the modus operandi.

Zoe: Yes, and I need to add that I’m also aware that hitting beats is what makes a movie enjoyable a lot of the time. If it’s just a shambling mess, people can’t get into it. I was just a little too aware of the mechanisms creaking underneath the fun patter. (And the movie did have a lot of pleasant surprises in it—and that may be why I noticed the beats so much more, because of the contrast between the pleasant surprises and the “oh yeah, totally saw that coming.”)

Ana: It’s a little like watching a magician. Once you know how he does it, it’s not fun anymore.

Zoe: Unless you’re That Guy—the one who gets all his fun out of spoiling it for everyone else by loudly telling the whole theater how it works. (I just sat quietly wishing for more fries.)

Kate: It could be a writer’s game. Go to a movie, and afterwards, the person who can identify the most beats gets their meal paid for by everyone else.

Zoe: I’m in! (Did I mention that this theater had comfy couches? This place might turn me into a theater-goer again. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a Tom Hardy movie out right now…comfy couches, fries, Tom Hardy…)

About the author: Kate Lowell

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