Plotting for You or the Story

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 19 2011

If you ever have a pitch appointment with me, the one thing you’ll get is lots of feedback. Based on your pitch, and sometimes material I have read, I’ll do my best to give you my thoughts on why the book isn’t working and suggestions on what you can do to make it stronger, or make it work better.

I was thinking back the other day to a pitch appointment I had in which every suggestion I made, the author argued that it couldn’t be done. Ultimately, any changes I was suggesting didn’t work with her vision of the book. She had her heart and mind set on how the story was going to go, and any deviation from that carefully plotted outline was sending her into a panic.

Unfortunately, I think this is a common mistake many authors make: writing for themselves and not the story. What this means is that the author has plotted out the story and knows how she intends it to read, and now she must write the book to that end. The problem is that no matter how much of a plotter you are (versus a pantser) you can’t always control how a book is going to play out. For example, in your outline it might have made perfect sense for your character not to tell her husband that she dyes her hair until chapter 15. The problem is that by chapter 4 the reader is wondering why the hell the heroine doesn’t just tell her husband that she dyes her hair. It’s just not making sense anymore and the conflict is quickly getting old. We need it to evolve from hair dye and it’s not, because it didn’t in your outline.

So no matter how much of a planner you are, be ready for changes, drastic changes sometimes.


33 responses to “Plotting for You or the Story”

  1. I plot everything; every little scene, dialogue exchange, everything, but it's more to keep me on track than anything else. Things change, and you have to be flexible.

  2. Avatar Perri says:

    I totally understand what you're saying, and yet, I sympathize for the writer too. It's so easy to get stuck in a sort of "plot rut."

    I think sometimes, it feels like new words might not come. We writers just don't trust that we can change some significant part and still come up with something that hangs together.

    Sometimes, it takes quite a few years' experience to see words as building blocks rather than gifts.

    Thanks for the post– its a great one.

  3. Avatar Stephanie says:

    So true. You have to be flexible. I'd also add that if you want to be a writer, you have to learn how to take constructive feedback. Especially from someone who knows what they're talking about and is trying to help you. It might be difficult. You might be tempted to scream, "CURSES! She can't tell him she colors her hair in chapter four! That ruins EVERYTHING!!" Don't. Instead, smile and nod. Go home and consider the advice. Sometimes we get so close to our work that we can't see flaws in the story.

  4. Avatar writegirl says:

    That's great advice. It's so easy to get stuck on certain things until you look at it and say, "Okay, why am I even doing it this way and what difference does it make if I change it?" When you ask yourself those questions, it's easier to let go (esp. if you're looking at the bigger picture). Chances are, when you give into change, you'll discover even better conflicts to present by chapter fifteen.

  5. I understand that we give birth to this baby that is the novel and then we fiercely protect it, afraid that if anyone dotes on it, it's going to grow up with all sorts of deformities. I think that's where critique groups come in handy because fellow writers teach you that it's okay to let someone else babysit for awhile. And trust me the child does grow into a more rounded individual and so will one's story. to continue to analogy- it takes a village.

  6. You are so right, Jessica.

    I agree with you 100% that the story should always come first. That can be difficult since, as you know, we writers have huge egos. It always, always, always seems like everything has to be about us. Actually, I don't feel that way, but I've heard stories.

    Also, regarding feedback, I think it's important to remember not to argue with someone who is providing feedback because it prevents you from hearing something valuable, and it just makes the other person think you're an ass. It's hard to hear criticism, but it can be worthwhile and if you're arguing, you aren't listening.

  7. Avatar MissFifi says:

    That is something I always think about as I write. I look forward to the day where someone may see the direction it needs to be because when you work so close to the story, you sometimes miss the necessary detours the story needs. This was a great post. Thanks!

  8. Avatar Donna Weaver says:

    I think it's awesome that you take the time to give feedback. That kind of thing is priceless!

  9. Avatar Lynn(e) says:

    I'd like to think that I'm willing and open to changes. I attended a lot of panels at AWP where they spoke about how you (as the agents) are really doing the best for your/our book.

  10. In my undergrad, we had to practice being critiqued by four or five peers and sit there and take it. I learned that if you needed to explain it and nobody got it, then you don't need to talk you need to rewrite your story.

    The worst thing I could have done for my novel was read Sol Stein "On Writing". It was the best thing that I could have ever done for my novel. I reshaped the first chapter until I ended up cutting it out completely. I took out scenes that were emotional to me because they bogged the story down.

    If you really want to feed your ego, listen to what the best in the business tell you. Then when you become a millionaire. When that happens then let your ego do whatever it wants… but still listen to the best in the business for your next book. repeat as needed

  11. I think every writer naturally cringes at the thought that our little masterpieces might not be perfect. LOL. But to be a successful writer, we have to grow thick skin and learn humility. It's a brutal business and any time we can get helpful criticism, it's in our best interest to suck it up…put the defensiveness away…and take it. Maybe go have a chocolate binge to ease the sting and feel all rebellious. :)Then get after it.

  12. Avatar Mr. D says:

    It's the better writer who can go with the flow of his/her own story. Even if it means straying from an outline.

    It's interesting that I just posted something similar on my own blog this morning. Whatayaknow.

  13. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    Great reminder. I'm a non-linear pantster so I don't have much plotted when I begin. Which means I have to do a bit of rewriting but I think leaves me open to changing the story as it evolves. I hope someday I get the opportunity to receive feedback at a pitch session.

  14. Avatar Laila Knight says:

    I know how the book will begin and end. Everything else is up for grabs. If a plot needs changing, why fight it? It's worth it just to make the story flow.

  15. I've had the same experience with critiquing other people's work. I think some people need to let the advice sink in first, or hear it from multiple people.

  16. It was easier to change things before I started outlining. But since half the time my characters end up taking the book in a whole new direction and I have to start my outline from scratch, I'm still open to criticism, even when it hurts. But I do understand that urge to defend. As a writer, you just have to remember it's all part of the skin-thickening process. (And now that I read that phrase, it sounds disgusting for some reason).

  17. Avatar A3Writer says:

    So when are you going to be able to take pitches again? The BookEnds site says no conferences are schedule. I'd love to pitch to you and pick your brain. Mmmm, brains. . . .

  18. Avatar ryan field says:

    I actually love when the changes happen on their own. Sometimes, mid-stream, the characters just take over and things happen.

  19. Avatar Jane says:

    I gave up trying to critique someone in my writing group who had an excuse for everything I pointed out was not working as well as it could. Eventually I stopped fighting her and just listed my points (she'd give her excuse and I'd move on to the next one.) Pretty much a waste of my time and hers.

    It's incomprehensible that a writer would have expert advice like yours right in front of her and then jettison it without giving careful consideration. At the very least, writers should train themselves to say, "Wow! That's something to consider the next time I go through this manuscript–" and then, you know, *consider* it later!

  20. Avatar Stephsco says:

    I've been collaborating with my husband on my story, learning to use his feedback to my advantage. He has shown me ways to change my novel that I never would have considered on my own. Other ideas will not work, but it challenges me to figure out why why and move on from there. I think continual critique is so valuable to the process.

  21. Avatar madameduck says:

    What a great post! As a pantser, it's definitely not geared towards me, though! 🙂

    Holly Black had some great advice on plotting, being flexible, and working through those "what now!?" moments at the SCBWI Western Washington conference this past weekend. Her advice was (gasp!) to talk about plot with someone else! Don't try to work through the little speed bumps (or, ahem, gaping plot holes) alone; bounce it off a friend! (or agent? :))

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow, I just don't get writers who won't bend. I'm published three times over now and I still listen to my agent, readers, and of course my editor. I want my book to be the best it can possibly be! 🙂

  23. I plot down to individual little details, but it's a frequent occurrence for things to change as soon as I actually begin writing. Last night, something awesome happened where a new scene evolved out of nowhere, but fit well into the ongoing action and provided a bit of time to explore one aspect of a character deeper. At other times, it takes writing the scene to realize that whatever I planned in my outline just won't work.

    I've found it gets easier to detach myself from the outline with each new story. I wonder if this may be the first novel that aspiring author has written or if she's just particularly stubborn. The thing we writers have to accept is that if we want someone to take our work and make it available to the masses, we have to be flexible and accept that they might want to change things. Of course, there are individual limits to how much we're willing to accept, but the only way to maintain 100% of your words is to cut everyone else out of the publishing process, either by self-publishing or locking the manuscript away.

  24. Avatar G says:

    I can certainly understand that person's stress, but in the end, it does pay to take advice.

    I had that issue with my latest project, but after patiently listening to a friend who was a former journalist and was doing me a ginormous favor by critiquing one of my drafts, I realized that sometimes, what you think might work for a plot device, doesn't when it comes up against a real world version of that particular plot device.

  25. Avatar girlseeksplace says:

    That's why I don't outline until the end. I have to let the characters do what they will and see what happens.

  26. Avatar Caroline says:

    I am very much a planner. I plan everything from vacations to which renovations I would do if I bought the house that I have been eyeing on Trulia (even though I probably won't buy it). Interestingly enough, I have a vague outline in my head when I start writing, and it is constantly changing. Sometimes there is too much change, but as I get to know my characters, I try to let them direct me. I hope that doesn't sound to freak deaky… Excellent post!

  27. I'm more of a pantser. I do outline (working through Victoria Schmidt's Book in a Month convinced me to give it a try) some. I tend to go back and forth between my WIP and my outline. I can't completely outline until I've written some of the story. And I usually feel free to change things up whenever it feels right…most of the time. 🙂

  28. Avatar Alaina says:

    Plain and simple, if something doesn't work, change it. I know how hard it can be, as I wrote a 500 page novel that had to be taken down to about 300 pages. On top of that, the age bracket for my characters was not quite right, so I rewrote a lot of the remaining pages to fit into a different catagory. No complaints, no trying to control the story for fit my origonal vision, I just did what I needed to do. When I find an agent, or publisher, I will have many more changes to make I am sure! 🙂 But that is how we take something from good, to great. We can't do it alone, because we know the story in our heads already. Therefore we need others to help us point out when something has been overlooked and is not meeting the needs of the story. As writers, we must always be flexible. That's my opinion anyway. 🙂

  29. Excellent post! And what a sweetie you are to give deatailed feedback. These people are missing out. BIGTIME.

    I always consider everyone's opinion even though at first it may not be what I intended it to be. Thanks for posting this.

  30. Avatar Ron says:

    You're right. You have to let the characters and the story take you where it wants to go. Question,what is a plantser?

  31. When I set out writing I didn't realize that for a feller like me I need to write 200K words in order to get 100K. The first hundred are for me/art and the second hundred are for the reader/market. So I'll always cherish my version, but no one will ever see it which quite frankly is probably a good thing. At any rate, I agree that flexibility is a must if you plan on achieving an audience.

  32. A very good post. And it's great that you do offer that kind of detailed feedback in a pitch session. It's too bad the writer had trouble hearing it.

    However, I'll say I can understand where she was coming from. And I'm not a plotter. I've only recently started keeping index cards on me to jot down ideas for WiPs.

    But even with that, I've had some problems with taking criticism. In fact, there was a time that I got in a shouting match with a member of my critique group. Okay, more than once. Once was over some major points he thought I should change in my book. The other was over changes i suggested in his. Luckily, we both eventually settled down, and eventually decided maybe there was a point to the critiques….

    Well, all I can say is at least I've gotten much better since then. I've finally learned, even if I feel very defensive, to shut-up, nod and thank the person for the comments. And then seriously think about them later, when I can be objective.

  33. Avatar wolfman141 says:

    My crit group has a rule: the author may not respond verbally to a critique, or even answer questions. When all the crits have been completed, only then can the author respond or defend if he or she feels the need. When that happens, it is invariably done calmly and respectfully. We all understand that taking criticism is a painful but necessary and valuable part of the process.