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I wish I knew more about plotting a novel. It’s one of the reasons I kick myself for not beginning my writing career earlier in life. If I’d spent my twenties starving in a garret as a writer, I’d be through the worst of the learning curve now. I’d have finished the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell argues is needed to develop mastery of a subject.  See Outliers: The Story of Success (2008).

I’ve approached plotting differently with each of the three novels I have drafted. On my first novel, I just started writing. I didn’t know any better. I got to the end, then went back and edited. And edited. And edited. I’m still editing it.

On the second, I knew the beginning and the end, and had a very detailed plan for how to get there, but I still had to stop frequently to do detailed research to be sure I was historically accurate. I finished the first draft, then went back and edited. I’m still editing it, too.

On the third novel – also historical fiction – I was somewhere in between in my planning.  More stops for research. I’ve only just completed the first draft of this book.  It’s the shortest novel I’ve written, and the next draft needs substantial expansion. So I’ll be editing it for awhile, too.

None of my plotting approaches has worked well, and all required – and will require – several re-writes to get something approximating a compelling plot. I know re-writing is as important as writing, but I’m lazy and impatient, so I’d like to figure out how to minimize the re-writing.

A couple of years ago, I participated in a writing seminar that offered a really simple approach to plotting that I might try. Claudia Suzanne gave a session at the Muse Online Writing Conference in 2010 called “Plot Your Novel in 15 Minutes or Less!”  Her advice: “decide where the story begins and ends, and let imagination and logic fill in the gaps.”

It works like this:

  • List the numbers 1-15 down the side of your page
  • On Line 1, give a one sentence description of how the novel begins.
  • On Line 15, give a one sentence description of how the novel ends.
  • Then go to Line 2, and describe what happens next after the beginning.
  • Then go to Line 14, and describe what happens just before the end.
  • Go back and forth from beginning to end until all 15 lines are filled in.

Now you should have a rough plot.

Once you’re done with the 15 points, you can flesh it out with your characters, subplots, etc.  Ms. Suzanne says screenwriters have been plotting this way for years.  For more information, you can go to her website at http://claudiasuzanne.com/. She does speaking engagements on this topic, if your writing group is interested. See also http://wambtac.com.

For those of you planning to participate in NaNoWriMo (a/k/a National Novel Writing Month . . . better known as November to the non-writers among us), maybe you can try this technique to outline your book.  Success in NaNoWriMo is a 50,000 word novel written entirely during the month of November.  To get your 50,000 words, you  just need 3,334 words on each of the 15 points in your outline! You can do your plotting in October, but don’t start writing until November.

I won’t be joining you this month during NaNoWriMo.  With any luck, I’ll be editing the novels I’ve already written. Maybe I’ll even finish one.