Writing Advice: Let the Plot Be


Each writer has their own technique. Some of us are planners and some of us like to fly by the seat of our pants. If you’re a planner, then you probably spend a fair amount of time outlining or describing what your plot is going to be. That can be a very helpful and worthwhile process, but it’s important to remember that those outlines aren’t set in stone.

In a post that detailed random storytelling thoughts and tips, Chuck Wendig reminded us to sometimes let the plot go. He says, “If you want to know why your characters keep getting in the way of your plot, that’s because it’s the characters’ job to get in the way of your plot. The solution to this is discard the plot and let the characters be the characters. We don’t read books for plots. We think we do. But we’re also dumb. Characters are everything in a story.”

You know how strongly I feel about the importance of characters. So, it’s no surprise that I agree with this advice. If you stick rigidly to a plot that you set out at the very beginning of your story, you run the risk of missing opportunities to discover things about your characters or let your story move in a new direction.

Now, that’s not to say that you should necessarily write a rambling character study in which nothing happens. Unless, of course, that’s what you want to write. And this doesn’t mean that plotting or planning is useless. Do your plotting, but know that your characters may lead you to a new plot you hadn’t planned on.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Seat of Your Pants


Welcome to Monday, dear blog readers. I hope your week has gotten off to a good start so far. Today is the final Monday in the month of October, and so it’s the last Monday on which I will be talking about planning a story. On the past few Mondays, I’ve discussed Planning Tentpoles, the Beat Sheet, and Index Cards. To give credit where credit is most positively due, all of these planning and plotting tips have come from Chuck Wendig and his amazing blog. Today, we turn again to Mr. Wendig’s 25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story and we focus on number 25: flying by the seat of your pants.

Within the NaNoWriMo community, there is a term for writers who choose not to plan, but rather to just jump headfirst into writing. These folks are known as pantsers. As in, they fly by the seat of their pants when writing. A more respectful term would probably be “discovery writers,” but no one I’ve spoken to has been offended by the “pantser” moniker.

In his blog post, Wendig says, “All this plotting and scheming just isn’t working for you, so go ahead and pants the hell out of it….Sometimes trying to wrestle your story into even the biggest box is just an exercise in frustration, so do what works for you and what doesn’t. Once again, however, I’ll exhort you to at least learn the skill of outlining — because eventually, someone’s going to ask for a demonstration of your ability.”

He’s right — planning can sometimes be a bear to deal with when all you want to do is get started on the actual act of writing. I totally understand that and sometimes I just dive in as well. But I always end up coming back and outlining some once I know what I’m writing about and who I’m writing about. There’s nothing wrong with “pantsing” it, but it’s good to have a framework for where you’re headed.

I hope this post, and the other Writing Advice posts this month, have been helpful for you! Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Beat Sheet


When it comes to story planning, some of us are big picture people and others are more focused on the minute details of what is going to happen in the plot. Luckily, there are planning and plotting techniques for both kinds of writers. As I said last week, I will be talking about different plotting/planning techniques each Monday in October. Next month is National Novel Writing Month, which means that this month is all about plotting out your story. Even if you’re not participating, though, I hope you find these posts helpful for planning your story.

This week I’m focusing on the “beat sheet” approach to plotting. In this blog post, 25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story, Chuck Wendig talked about the writer’s beat sheet. I had not heard of this approach before I read Wendig’s blog post, but it sounds like an interesting way to go. As Wendig describes it, the beat sheet is “for you real granular-types, the ones who want to count each grain of sand on your story’s beach… Chart each beat of the story in every scene. This is you writing the entire story’s plot out, but you’re writing it without much dialogue or narrative flair. It’s you laying out all the pieces. The order-of-operations made plain.”

This sounds really, super in-depth. And that might be overwhelming for a lot of writers, but this also might be right up your alley. If it’s something that you’re interested in, I think there are a lot of advantages to the “beat sheet” plan. Knowing these granular details of what will happen in your story will allow you to sit down each day and know what you’re writing that day. If you don’t have to stop and think about what you’re writing each day, that will give you more time to actually write.

It may sound strange, but knowing those itty bitty details of your plot will also give you more room to change things. If you know everything your characters will experience, from top to bottom, then you know where things can change and where they can’t. Having this kind of up close and personal relationship with your story means that you can alter it if you need to and make adjustments easily.

I hope this helps you out! Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Planning Tentpoles


Right now, we’re in the midst of October. This means, of course, that November is right around the corner. And, for me, November means National Novel Writing Month. By extension, this means that October is typically a mad dash to plan a story, write out character profiles, and construct some kind of outline so that I’m not lost in the literary woods during the month of November. This is not always easy, and it doesn’t really help that there about a gazillion ways to plan a story. There are different techniques, different things to focus on, and different ways to even structure your story at the most basic level. Throughout October, I’ll be talking about several ways to plan a story, based on tips from Chuck Wendig’s 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. Please go check out that post because Chuck Wendig is super awesome.

So, the tip that I want to focus on today is all about tentpoles. When planning, Chuck suggests creating tentpole moments within your story that you leap to while you’re striving toward your ending. Chuck says, “You might have five, maybe ten of these. Write them down. These are the elements that, were they not included, the plot would fall down (like a tent without its poles). The narrative space between the tentpoles is uncharted territory.”

What bits of your story are absolutely essential to the plot? This question will help you establish those tentpoles, and it might force you to make some hard decisions. At this stage of the game, some of your original ideas might be cut because you’re sticking only to the most important things that will hold up the “tent” of your story. Once you have these, write them down so that you can refer back to them as you’re in the thick of writing the story.

Another reason I love this philosophy is that it leaves you so much leeway! Sure, you have those solid tentpoles in your story, but you’ve also got vast swaths of wilderness between each pole. In that wilderness, you’re free to lead your character through rough terrain until they arrive at that next tentpole.

I hope this bit of advice helps you. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: In the Headlights


Last week I posted about outlining and the many different ways to execute that planning mechanism. As I concluded in the post, the way you outline really depends on you, your personal preferences, and what will work best for the story you’re writing. Whatever you’re most comfortable with is what you should go with. And so, this week I thought I would talk about what kind of outlining works best for me.

You may have heard that quote from E.L. Doctorow that says writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Essentially, this quote says to me that you can only plan so much. You can only see so far ahead, even in your own story. Outlining can be helpful, but unless you’re going to stick to that outline no matter what, the document you create may become obsolete as you continue to write. After all, aliens may decide to invade, psychotic family members may decide to drop by, or your main character may decide she’s had enough of this nonsense you’ve been writing. Writing can be volatile and there are times when your best-laid plans will fall apart.

I recently saw Doctorow’s sentiments reiterated in a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog entitled 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. One of his twenty-five items sounds a lot like the quote mentioned above, although he uses a flashlight rather than headlights. Wendig’s tip reads, “You outline only as you go. Write a scene or chapter. Roughly sketch the next. Then write it. Onward and upward until you’ve got a proper story.”

Until I read this quote, I didn’t realize it, but this is the kind of outlining that I do most often. Especially during National Novel Writing Month, when write-ins are happening every weekend and those 30 days are just flying by. Even when I’m not under a crazy time constraint, though, I tend to write for a certain period of time and when I’m ready to stop, I write up a mini-outline of what should happen next. That way, I’ll have a marker for where to begin when I sit down to write again.

Check out Chuck Wendig’s blog post and see what kind of plotting and prepping is best for you.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan