The Road to Plotting
I thought I was trying to learn to write beats. But those really weren’t the beats I was looking for. So I have to admit to myself, and to you, that I was on the wrong track.
What I’m about to tell you should prove, conclusively, that I’m an honest man. Do you know why? Because what I’m about to disclose makes me look like an idiot. Okay, less “like an idiot” and more just “an idiot.”
I was on the wrong trail all along. To understand why — because it’s good to learn from my mistakes, right? — let’s take a step back and see where I was and why I was trying to use beats in the first place.
The World was Formless and Without plot
Back in the mid-1980s, I bought my first PC, an Epson Equity+, and used it and PFS:Write to write a novel called Olympia Dreaming. It only took me a couple of months. I was really proud of it!
Until I read it. Though on the plus side, I now had a new experience. I knew what harsh reality felt like.
My dialogue’s never been terrible. My descriptions? So-so. Action? I’ve read worse. And surprisingly, I didn’t hate my characters. The plot, on the other, was terrible. It was, as George H. Scithers once said in a rejection letter to me, “ODTAA” — One Damned Thing After Another.
Pantsing, or writing novels without plotting them out first, wasn’t working for me. So, I filed that information away and turned my attention to other matters. Like raising a family, and embarking on a very enjoyable non-fiction writing career centered around Lotus Notes Domino and Microsoft technologies like ActiveX Data Objects. There may have been a professional career in there somewhere, too.
But I couldn’t not write my novels. Since July of 2016, I’ve been trying to get back to them. But I hadn’t learned plotting, and I knew I couldn’t pants it.
Maybe Beats Will Save My Plots!
This will make sense in a minute.
I’d seen the promise of self-publishing, so I searched for sources of information. One of the most promising was Sterling and Stone. They had a video series called Fiction Unboxed that was like a revelation to me. At the time, there were three men who did team-based writing. One of them handled plotting. They didn’t do outlines. Instead, they did beats.
To me, that looked like the way forward. It clearly worked for them, so I started trying to put that idea into practice. Sterling and Stone as a company have since changed direction. They don’t put out materials like Fiction Unboxed anymore. Their new material doesn’t speak to me the way the old did. So, I’ve if I wanted more info, I’d have to look elsewhere. And look elsewhere I did.
As I said in my previous post, I found several really good sources of information about the concept of beats and how they should be used. I learned there are plot beats and emotional beats. Just after I published that post, I found a post by Katherine Cowley that had even more information. It was a new revelation.
It defined beats at a level of detail that spoke to me. It helped me understand exactly what beats are and how to use them. I now knew what they could do for me. And I understood that they were of no use to me whatsoever.
But Katherine Cowley’s post? It gave me the critical clue. I now not only know the way forward. I’ve taken the necessary steps. That clue was a Dan Well video from 2010.
And We’re Off
Does this look familiar?
- Plot Turn 1
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Plot Turn 2
There’s nothing magic about this. It’s a classic formulation of plot. I’d seen it before, but it took Dan Wells’ videos and examples to make it live for me. I’ve rarely seen so lucid and inspiring a presentation. If you haven’t seen these, they’re well worth your time. They’re 10-15 minutes apiece, and there are 5 of them. Even if you don’t want to learn about plotting, I still recommend them. Seeing someone who’s passionate about their craft, and who’s really good at that craft, present is always a beautiful thing.
The videos unlocked what I’d been looking for since I realized pantsing didn’t work for me. The examples in the videos clarified points I’d thought I understood, but now realized I had only dimly grasped.
Using that approach, I finished laying out the plot for A Ghast in the Shell last week. I laid out the main action plot. Then I laid out the character plots for Dek, Booth, Porter, Martin, Southfield, and Adair. Then I braided them together and came up with the master story structure. I finished that on Friday, December 18, 2020.
Less Than 90 Minutes of Video Surpassed 4 Years of Experiments
Those five videos unlocked what I’d been looking for all this time. I knew that the 72 snippets I’d written and called beats were really rough, rough drafts of chapters. I’d reached the point where I couldn’t go forward with them anymore because I knew I was on the wrong track.
See the screen capture above? That’s a portion of the plot structure I finished. I am still surprised, but I’ve actually completed it.
Now I have the plot that’s eluded me for more than 4 years. I have no more excuses between me and writing the first book of the trilogy. Heck, I even have drafts of 70+ chapters. The characters are in place. I have most of the key sets designed. The TEF Indiana is designed down to the meter. I even wrote the mission plan for the 61 Cygni Expedition. You know what that means, right?
The next post I give you in a week’s time will update you on my word count.
Let’s see if I can really pull this off.