On the plotting and writing process

I was recently asked how I plot. My answer, I admit, was something along the lines of “Badly!” – I’m not one of those writers who can meticulously plot something out and then just write it from notes! I get bored…and there’s no space for the story to adapt, which is my major way of writing. My characters go off on tangents, have strange conversations, do really stupid things – and I can’t forsee that! It just happens!

But anyway. It occurred to me that actually, I’m being a bit unfair to myself. I didn’t used to plot. However, I now seem to be settling into more of a rhythm, and for the last four books I have plotted. I did a general post on writing and editing, but I neglected to go into any detail about what happens between the original idea and the writing. So! I’m going to give you an additional bonus of some hints about the last story in the GreenSky series, Bright Spark & Sunrise, and use that as an example.

The story started with an idea about electromagnets, and a conversation with the household (well, the human parts of the household) about how to make one. Essentially, anything that turns can be made into a generator…and I then slotted that into my political situation. So! I’ve got a base idea. Then what?

Characters. Well, this is Meton, so I’ve got a cast there already. But I need a new one, too…I need a spy, probably, to steal the item. I need a spy in the Castle itself to be pushing information out, otherwise how do they know about the device?

This led to a blurb;

There’s a secret project being built in Meton, a device that will change the spark system and the world. And Zack Rezian, soldier of fortune and politician’s messenger, has been hired to steal it. It’s a simple job; he’s only got to contend with a frustrated sleeper spy, a deadly archivist, his own political masters and the radical new Lord of Meton…and that’s before he’s even found out anything about the device he’s been hired to steal.

My next step was figuring out where I wanted to start the story, and thinking about the first chapter. I then do a very rough outline of what’s likely to happen, where events would go. So we’ve got something like;

Zack given task – arrives in Meton – integrates into the Castle – finds device – steals device – escapes Castle – goes home.

For all of those sections, I can then expand. I need an explanation at the beginning, so that could either happen in Meton or in Zack’s briefing (or both). I can add motives; what’s his cover story for the Castle? Who would he meet? How does he get to the device? Does he steal it? What happens if he does? What happens if he doesn’t?

I can add in secondary characters, too. He’d meet some familiar faces; what would they think of him? What’s the sleeper spy’s opinion and thoughts on the situation? What would Zack’s cover story do to his relations with people? Are there any other cultural issues or character problems that could be dropped in to cause tension, plot twists or general chaos?

And all of that then starts to split into chapters. I’ve now got 12 chapters, which at 3000 words each is pretty much perfect length. I’ve got a rough idea of what needs to happen in each one – because I’m used to my writing style, I’m happy with some flexibility, and I know the events can shift between chapters if something takes up more or less space.

And there you go, I’m ready to start writing! I know some people do more plot at this point, working out the exact motives, dropping in everything they want to happen or know…but I’m a lot happier just letting my brain take over and the characters talk. I find that if I plot too much, I’d just rather be writing it!

And have a snippet…

“I don’t usually take commissions that put me firmly on one side of the political divide, but,” and Zack’s shoulders moved in an elegant shrug, “I’m bored.”

“And not getting commissions from the Dirrs,” Bechtol said bluntly, brushing a hand over his white hair.

“Now, now. You should know better than to buy into the rumour mill.”

“I have enough experience to know which rumours are true.”

“It was as much my choice as their to stop performing services for them.” The gentle, mocking smile was still on Zack’s face. “So! What are you going to offer to relieve my tedium?”

“How about a trip to Meton?” the old Marlin said, abandoning his line of questioning as unfruitful.

Zack raised his eyebrows, and then his boots swung off the desk and he sat up, all business. “Sounds less dusty than this place. Details?”