Friday, January 29, 2010

Plotting? Moi? by Terry Odell

findingsarah_frontmsr Thanks to Terry Odell for guest posting for me today for my Writing Process series on Mystery Writing is murder! Terry’s books straddle the mystery and romance genres and you can find out more about them here.


Thanks, Elizabeth for having me as your guest on Mystery Writing is Murder. When I saw your topics, I had a head-scratch moment, since I don't consciously separate my writing process into the 3 stages you mentioned. Then again, I'm someone who thought she was writing a mystery, but was told by my daughters that it was a romance. At that point, I'd never read a romance, so I just kept writing the story I wanted to tell. I didn't know there were "rules" or "methods" so I just do what works for me.

I'm not a plotter or an outliner. I tried. Really tried. Went to all those workshops about storyboarding. But after a short time, all I could think was, "enough of this." I don't do character sheets, because that's as much of an "enough of this" exercise as plotting.

For me, writing is a matter of moving in short bursts, and keeping track of what's happened, or where I think I might want to go. But as Nora Roberts is famous for saying, "I can't fix a blank page." So I write and see what happens.

First writing of the day is looking at what I wrote the day before. It's had time to settle, and the typos tend to rise to the top. It also gives me a running start for new material. I have an on-line critique group, and if they've given me feedback, I'll decide what needs to be addressed. If they catch a plot hole, I have to fix it before going further.

Late afternoons and evenings, I write new stuff. That's simply the way my mental rhythms work out; everyone deals with their own schedules.

My current manuscript was my first straight mystery, and I thought I might drag out the storyboard again. Still a no go. But I did find I could use it to keep track of what I'd written, and also of ideas for scenes, plot points, character moments. I used two separate boards: one for the ideas, and one for tracking the story.

First came the ideas. Plain and simple, it was brainstorming. Lots of "what if" thoughts. For previous books, I'd done it on a computer document, but having the physical sticky notes to pick up and move around gave me a better visual, and made it easy to change things. As I dealt with each 'idea' I'd either toss it or put it on the story board in the appropriate chapter box.

Since I've been "trained" in romance, I tend to focus on the big GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict for each character. I would figure out what my characters wanted, why they wanted it, and why they couldn't have it. Again, a lot of trial and error. For example, in the book I just finished, the underlying motivation was for Justin to find a "secret something" (at the beginning of the book, that was enough for me) at his grandparents' home. A big question I ask myself all through the process is "why". So, why would Justin want something? And, the bigger why: Why doesn't he just ask his grandparents for it? They love him; they'd probably give it to him. So figuring out what "it" was required a lot of discarded ideas.

But I don't need to know exactly what it is right away. Heck, I didn't even know who the villain was until at least halfway through the book. I strongly believe that our subconscious minds will know, or at least lead us in that direction.

Using colored post-its made it easy to see at a glance where the story was going. I learned what I needed to track and started adding things like where the scene took place, what secondary characters appeared, what clues were revealed, what day it was, etc. I used big sticky notes for the POV characters; a different color for each. I used smaller ones for the secondary characters, locale, etc. By the end, the story board was jam-packed, and my idea board was almost empty. If I'd looked at the empty board and tried to fill in before I started writing – well, "enough of this."

So, I suppose if I had to summarize my writing technique, it would be plan a little, write a little, fix a little. Rinse. Repeat. When I finally get to "The End" I do tightening edits, but by then, the story should (note "should", not "is") be complete. After the tightening comes the polishing, where I'll find the rest of those problem children that have risen to the top. But, again I don't play by the rules. I can't write scenes out of order. If I'm waiting for feedback on a critical point, rather than write ahead and take the chance everything will unravel when I find out whether the cops can actually do what I want them to, then I'll do some polishing. Maybe I'll plug a chapter into and see what words I'm overusing. Or make sure my transitions are clean, or my dialogue isn't drivel.

If you want to see how my storyboard technique worked for me, there's a summary on my website.

Hope this helped someone – I'll be happy to answer questions. And I chat about other aspects of writing at my own blog, Terry's Place,


Thanks so much, Terry! I love finding out how other authors plan and write their books. And that storyboard is very cool-looking.

I took this opportunity to do some guest blogging myself. :) You’ll find me today on Mason Canyon’s blog, Thoughts in Progress. My topic today is “Nancy, Trixie, Scooby, Miss Marple, and Me.” Hope you’ll pop by.