Posted by: stelladuffy | June 16, 2009

not writing but plotting

So, it’s nearly 3pm on a gorgeous sunny day and, having spent the morning hard at work, you might think I could now slope off to my garden and enjoy the fruits of my hard-won morning. But you’d be wrong. Because what I did all morning was plan/plot/order (into a glorious 5-act structure what’s more) the chronology of the 2nd of my historical fictions. But I haven’t actually done any WRITING yet. And the fact remains that, for me, plotting is simply NOT writing. It is, at least, a recollection of thoughts from my research, another chance to look at the points I do want to use, some I can discard, others which might be useful that I hadn’t thought about since doing the research. But it’s definitely not writing. Not the first-draft, making-stuff-up, just-getting-the-thing-down-on-paper-so-I-can-make-it-better-later simply writing the story that I know I need to do before I can really start to work on the thing.
Now, I know some people who are really intense about their plotting, do masses of it, the whole book is pretty much all worked out before they begin, and then they get to work and it’s just a matter of joining the dots. These people make up maybe 20-30% (max) of the (published) writers I know. The rest of us have a vague/less-vague idea of where we’re going, find it as we work on it, and do our heavier work either in the re-writes when the first draft is done, or as we go along.
What I, and about 2/3 of the writers I know, don’t do, is what I spent my morning doing – highlighting, colour-coding, printing & pinning up a big old story about the story I haven’t yet written. I’m annoyed with myself because in many ways it’s make-work, feels satisfying at the time (especially when those notes are up on the wall), certainly LOOKS like work-done, and yet … when it comes down to it, when I come back to my desk and look what I’ve done today, actually … I still have my (minimum) 500 words to write. Today. Grrr.
Who knows, maybe over the next few weeks I’ll find it was really worthwhile doing this revisioning of a structure/chronology I’d already worked on during my research, maybe this morning’s recap will bear fruit (or maybe – and this is my big fear – it will tie me far too much into the chronology of what ‘really’ happened to let my story and characters fly off into a NOVEL. Which is, after all, what I’m writing. An historical novel yes, with facts and everything, but a novel nonetheless. And a novel wants stuff in it that’s made up.)
So that’s what I’m going to do now. Make up some stuff. (In the garden.)


  1. Hey, I’m garden bound too… and I’m taking my pad of paper, and my finest selection of biros. God knows what I’m going to achieve out there mind you, but I’ll give it a go. Pick up an ice tea on my way through the kitchen and out the lean-to. Cheers! Might be naughty and have an ice cream later.

  2. Nothing is wasted, I find, Stella. Maybe you have to do this to get to the point where you can do some more ‘proper writing’.

    We scriptwriters are forever being asked to write (and rewrite) outlines and treatments and synopses, which I hate as they tend to kill all the fun and excitement of a first draft. But they can save quite a bit of time further down the line if you realise you haven’t got enough story or it’s too simple or too complicated or missing some vital ingredient.

    Having said which, I’ve just done the first draft of a rom-com screenplay (on spec) and have had a ball. With comedy especially the script’s the thing – few people will ever laugh at an outline or treatment, so you have to convince them with a script.

    So here I am, waiting impatiently for some professional feedback – and the first rewrite, no doubt…

  3. ooh, the scary screenwriting stories about writing and re-writing treatments and outlines a million times before ever writing a ‘real’ script-word terrify me. I wonder if that’s what they did in the old days of the movies and telly? or if they ever trusted us to just write the script …

    ah, the impatient wait. I’ve been doing that for two weeks on one project and three on another. oh yes, and 6 weeks on another. lucky I have this wonderfully elevated life state to perceive it all from with utter calm … heh.

  4. The last D&D Shunt I attended before coming out here (to NYC) I called a session. It went like this “I’m rubbish at plots and characters, could I write a play?”. I didn’t expect anyone to come along – thought I would sit by myself and have a quiet think on the subject – but it turned out that most of the people there felt some passion on the subject and had something to say. Had no idea I’d hit on a hot spot!

    It was useful. Partly because I found myself disagreeing with most of what people had to say. I could be totally wrong as I’m going with my guts not talking from any experience right now but I had a kind of physical reaction to the tyranny of ‘the plot’, the story structure, that was discussed. I didn’t want to know. I find it very weird because I love a good story?????!!!!! I am due to start my writing course in a week’s time now. Have to write/plot my own syllabus (more or less) for the semester and have less and less idea what/ who I am as a writer but that’s why I am doing it….. SO my own life-plot right now is very puzzling. I’ll let you know how it unfolds….

  5. hah – which is particularly pertinent as I was thinking about you and wondering how it’s going as I wrote the blog!!
    I too, love a good story, but I know that I get it with my heart/spirit, rather than with my head. that is, when watching/hearing/reading/taking part in one the piece of me that ‘plots’ (brain perhaps?) is less important than the piece of me that experiences/feels. And yes I also know, from impro/making story ‘live’ that I need to keep aware of/utilise that plotting head as well …

    I also think story and plot are very different things. (plot = what happens, story = what is/what we care about, and maybe a third, narrative = what draws us along. maybe …)

    hopefully plot serves story. hopefully plottING serves writer!

  6. I think there are very few novelists who really plot the whole thing before writing it – whatever they may say. Just as there are few who actually write with no idea at all of where they are heading.

    If you ask the ‘pure’ plotters they usually admit to making modifications as they go along resulting from new thoughts or discoveries during the writing. Similarly if you ask the ‘pure’ seat-of-the-pants writers, they usually admit to having a vague idea where the story is going to end up.

    I don’t think your morning of plotting was wasted. All the thoughts will infuse in the unconscious mind and will make your novel richer in the end.

  7. oh I’m sure you’re right Rod. (at least, I hope you are …!)

  8. Dear Stella…

    Couldn’t unearth your Email, so tried via comments…

    I’m a Lifetime member of the WGA in the States with three produced features. I’ve written a book about screenwriting, Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great, and am coming to London to talk at the Met Film School about “Fatal Errors Beginning Writers Make.”

    Would you be interested in mentioning my talk on your blog? I am obviously trying like crazy to get the word out, and would appreciate any aid you can render. Let me know if you’d like me to send you the propaganda…

    Thank you!

    Best regards,

  9. there you go Will. now you’ve mentioned yourself on my blog! and I look forward to you doing the same for my 11 novels on yours, right?
    all best

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