Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Plotboard - part two

Cards and drafts

I thought I’d mention a bit about how I use the cards and Post-Its on my plotboard before I get into detail about the different sections of the board.

First draft
The keyword for this stage is: messy.  This is the ideas stage, after all.  Flashes of inspiration.  Nothing neat about those.  In this stage I tend to scribble ideas down on any bit of paper I can find and pin them to the board where I think they’ll be most relevant.

Don’t care about what colour or what shape the ideas are written on, as long as they go on the board.  Some of them may be thrown away later and some of them may prove to be some kick-butt ideas to take my story forward.  No way to know which until I start to write, so everything stays until I’ve finished the first draft.  If I don’t use an idea, I keep the bit of paper anyway.  For the last book that came in very handy, because ideas that I’d discarded in the first draft helped me revise the book after my editor had seen it and asked for changes.

As I write, I use half an index card (cut vertically) and put the bare plot point of the element on the top of the card.  For example, some card headings from the previous book were: “Zoe and Damien dance” or “Zoe and Damien reach a truce” or “Zoe goes back home”. 

At the moment I’m using white cards.  I was using yellow, but I discovered I kept running out of yellow index cards and was drowning in the other colours from the multi-coloured packs you can buy.  At least I can get white index cards easily in one pack on their own.

As I complete a scene, I add an index card to the board.  For the previous book I also stuck a small Post-It to the card indicating the goal of the POV character for that scene.  Always good to remind yourself what your characters want (and what’s thwarting their progress).

In this part of the process, I find myself returning to my board constantly to remind myself of what good ideas I’ve forgotten and to remind myself of where I want to go.  It can be hard to hold all of that information in your head.  Sometimes, when I’m focussed on a particular part of the story, I forget all about the flashes of inspiration I’ve had about a different sections.  That’s where my board comes in handy.  It holds all that information for me until I’m ready for it.

The plotboard is also useful to remind myself of things I need to go back and change as I get further on in the writing process.  I added notes while writing my previous book to change the style of the bride’s wedding ring in the opening scenes and to set up my hero as being a little more stiff and structured. 

Subsequent drafts/revisions
Quite often, after you’ve finished a book, you’re far too close to it to see where the problems lie.  I often return to my plotboard, strip it bare of everything but the white cards and look at the story in a more tidy, analytical way.  First draft was where I let my creative right brain play.  Revisions and editing are much more about the logical left brain.

Last time round (after reading Dara Mark’s fabulous book Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc) I decided to look at my book in three threads:

What Dara calls the A story – on other words the plot.  It’s very easy in a character-led book to slip into classifying internal decisions as plot, but I try and save that for the other threads.  The A story is all about the physical action: what are the characters doing?  What are the working towards? Where are they going?  I used yellow Post-Its.  For some reason yellow means plot to me.  Dunno why.  Sometimes, if the scene heading on the top of the card was enough description on its own, I highlighted that text yellow and didn't bother with the Post-It.

Then we have the B story: the character arc.  In a romance, you normally have two character arcs or journeys – one for the hero and one for the heroine.  I chose green from my pack of Post-Its for this (because green makes me think of growth).  On these stickers I noted my characters’ internal journeys – what they started out like, what their character flaws and fears were, what they need to learn.  Also, when they had moments of breakthrough and changed, how they faced challenges and either resorted on their armour to keep themselves safe or did something new and brave.  At the end of the board it's all about making sure those flaws and fears you mentioned at the beginning have been dealt with.  I read through each chapter, saw what I’d already brought out and then I crystalised it into a sentence or two on a Post-It and stuck it on the index card.  Quite often it helped me define the character’s growth at that point and I could start to see if I’d brought out the right things or if there was something missing.

Then there’s the C story.  Dara says there’s always a C story.  It’s the relationship that changes the protagonist.  Quite often it's through interaction with another person or thing that the protagonist discovers the error of their ways.  In a romance, this will be the developing love story.  I noted down on pink Post-Its (the only colour I had left - I’m really not anal about what colour goes where) how the hero and heroine were feeling about each other, what the romantic conflict was, and where the milestones were e.g first kiss, first meeting, declarations of love.  Again, it helped me check each scene was moving the relationship on in a believable and emotionally logical manner.

The odd thing is about this part of the process that I hardly ever look back to see what I’ve put on the board in great detail.  Unlike the first draft, when I need reminders, the second draft (or whatever) seems to be much more about the process of plotboarding.  As I write it all down it somehow solidifies the story in my head, keeps the threads woven tight together so I can see where things need changing or developing as I work.

More detail on each section of the board soon...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

One of the best bits

One of the best bits of my job is getting to research and/or visit interesting places.  My next book is going to be set in a stately home, so today I visited Leeds Castle (near Maidstone in Kent) for some inspiration.  I'm not going to say much more, but just let the pics I took of this fairytale castle do the talking:

Leeds Castle

The bridge to the castle island

The Queen's bedchamber

Little courtyard in the centre of the castle

The library (I want!)

The castle from the lawn on the island

From the centre of the maze

The castle on its island

Sigh.  What more can I say?

Friday, 18 November 2011

Plotboarding - how I got started

Okay, I promised some blogs about my plotboard.  Now, I can’t claim to have invented the idea – far from it – but I’ve been tweaking my own approach to using index cards and pins to help me visualise my book for about six years now.

I’m quite a visual thinker and it helps me to ‘see’ the structure of my book this way.  It also provides a place to put all those ‘lightning bolt’ ideas I get about my book before, during and after the first draft.  You  know the kind of ideas I mean: the ones you get when you’re minding your own business, not even really thinking about the book and – BAM! – suddenly you know why your heroine is acting that way, or the perfect setting for a scene comes to mind, or just a line of dialogue pops into your head and triggers something off.

When I get those kind of ideas – and they are generally my best ones – I scribble them down and pin them to my board.  My board follows a chronological timeline of my work-in-progress, and when I think about where to pin that scrap of paper it often becomes instantly obvious where and when it should go.  Do things move and change as I work on the book?  Absolutely.  That’s why God gave us coloured pins!  That’s the beauty of a plotboard: nothing is set in stone.

Anyway, here’s my first plotboard. This was the one I used for Her Parenthood Assignment.  My whole approach to plotting was much less sophisticated (and probably much less neurosis-inducing) back then.  I’d read that a good way to plot was to think of 20 things that needed to happen in your book.  That’s what the pink index cards are: 20 plot points for the story.  Then, as other ideas came to me, or notions of how I could develop those plot points floated to the surface of my consciousness, I tacked them onto the board next to the relevant plot point.

Later that year, I listened to the audio recording of Michael Hauge speaking at the RWA conference in Dallas.  I loved the way he divided a plot into six stages, with a turning point between each one.   I’d already read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and was familiar with the steps of the hero’s journey, but Michael Hauge’s approach was simpler: basically three acts, with a turning point in the middle of each one. 

So I started trying to incorporate that into my board.  Here’s version number 2, which I used to plot Christmas Wishes, Mistletoe Kisses (although, by the looks of it, I took this picture fairly early on in the process.)  I turned my board landscape and divided the space into six sections with bits of string (well, actually it was yellow wool left over from a pair of socks my grandma had knitted me years before) and labelled those sections and the turning points at the top.  Now when I had an idea I didn’t worry so much about getting it in exactly the right chronological order, as long as I stuck the scrap of paper in the right section I’d know where to find it. 

From what I remember, I decided to colour code to help me pick out the essential info.  The white cards are plot events, the pink cards relate to my heroine’s journey and the blue my hero’s.  Yellow cards were snatched of dialogue and the green were things to do with theme.  I carried on using this format for a couple of years.  Where I placed the cards and what colour they were changed as I tried different things out. 
Sometimes I was very fixed on cataloguing character arc and plot separately; sometimes I just threw it all on there any old way.  The main disadvantage was that I could see the plot flowing from card to card in one long line, as I had with my earlier version.

Then I read Save The Cat by Blake Snyder.  Great book, and I loved his idea of storyboarding too.  He divided his story board into four horizontal strips: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b and Act 3.  I immediately decided to try the same thing, and discovered I now had room to use my plot point cards in chronological order, but I still had room to pin all the little flashes of ideas around them too.  So this is how my current plotboard looks like:

This the the board when I was halfway through writing The Ballerina Bride (US title)/Dancing With Danger (UK title).  Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough already for this post, so next time I’ll talk about the structure of the different acts and what goes where.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Should've stayed on board...

Just got revisions back for Always The Best Man (whether it keeps that title or not remains to be seen!).  It seems that my ending feels a little rushed.  I had suspected as much myself, and when I got my trusty plotboard out, I could see why!

This is the current incarnation of my plotboard. 
There are four rows:
  • act 1
  • first part of act 2
  • second part of act 2
  • act 3

Compared to the beginning of the story, the last act is a little sparse!  And if I'd paid attention to my board instead of ignoring that while I wrote the final chapter or two, I might have worked that out for myself.

I find having visual map of my book exremely helpful in both the writing and revising stages.  In the first draft I can scribble my ideas on post-its and index cards (or bits of envelopes etc.) and often there is an obvious place to pin those ideas when I look at my board.  In the revising stage, I can start to jiggle cards around and see what's working and what isn't.

Anyway, can't stay round here blogging all evening.  I've got a book to revise!  Back to the board for me...