Plotting your novel, a two phase method to face your demons

Hello all,

This was a post I had promised myself to upload after the release of my second novel, Avishi.  If you are an aspiring novelist, I am sure plotting would have been a topic you pondered on quite a bit. It is daunting to envisage that 80,000+ word novel without a guide map and it is all the more torturing to have it haunting you while it remains unwritten.

Back in 2016, I was going through a usual journey of uncertainty, marketing (or rather wondering about marketing) my debut novel Abhaya and getting stuck at multiple places while writing Avishi. It was in March 2016 that I put what I thought as the first chapter together and all the way through March-July 2016, I had only written different versions of the beginning without making any progress. The method of plotting helped me progress (It is also helping me as I write my second instalment of the Abhaya series!). I think it is worthwhile sharing with you. Hope it helps you in your writing too!

Plot at two levels

You heard me right. The first level, (hoping that a little bit of jargon does not bother you) or L1 Plotting requires the writer to jot down the events of the plot in order. For simplicity sake, assume that each event makes up for a chapter. (Splitting and merging can and will happen later). For Eg, This is how I wrote down the events of Avishi’s plot :

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While at it, 

  1. Try not to spend more than 5 minutes on what each event. (Write the first thing that comes to your mind in the sequence)
  2. Feel free to write down the points where you don’t know and mark them (This helps you improvise your precious day dreaming about the story!)
  3. Keep in mind that changes will occur at each stage. The plot you write now is NOT sacrosanct. 

During my plotting, I managed to jot down 35 events which I thought would define the crux of each chapter. The process took me about less than two hours and left quite some questions unanswered. But at least I knew what I did not know.

Second level

Take a break for a day or two before doing this. The L2 plotting requires you to zoom into each event/chapter and detail out how the events pans out, which character is introduced, what would he or she aim for and how it connects to the next event.

The L2 of my first chapter looked like this :

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Again while at it,

  1. Devote not more than 10-12 mins for each event
  2. Note down and highlight the unanswered parts
  3. Liberally change the L1 Plot as your mind unravels the story

It took me a couple of days to complete L2 Plotting for Avishi. I noticed that new events (and characters) which I had not imagined in L1 phase came up and some old events had to be deleted. Some questions could be answered and new questions sprung up, demanding answers. All in all, the story was assuming a life of its own!

Take a break of another couple of days to dwell on these unanswered questions or even try keeping your mind off the novel for a while.

In the third phase, type the L2 on to a document on your laptop. Yes, I strongly advocate that you plot the first two stages in a journal. It has its benefits. When you type out the detailed plot on your laptop, you will again find some inevitable changes happening in the course of the story. The blind spots are narrowed down enough to not bother you when you are working on the other parts of the novel.

Now is when you actually start writing. The biggest advantage of this process is that you can write your draft in a non linear fashion, pick up the incomplete parts later and make changes as required. I have to reiterate that changes happen at every stage. (An event or two you see in the first image did not even appear in the draft in my case!). Changes and question marks are a sign that your characters are asserting themselves and it is good!  Needless to say, your confidence would have grown multi fold. You are now ready to begin the writing journey.

Happy Writing!

Do you have a plotting related experience that you would like to share? Please feel free to comment below.

 

 

 

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Why your Beta Reader is more crucial than your writing coach

The year was 2013. I had wrapped up an early draft of my debut novel and had forwarded the samples to a couple of publishers and agents. The wait of six to nine weeks was followed by reminder emails from my side when replies flew in promptly with regrets and rejections. A couple of rejection mailers flew in so quickly after my reminder that I was tempted to believe they were auto generated. It was then that I came across this author and writing coach who also worked as a literary agent. Having attended one of his writing workshops in the past, I had hoped that this person would empathize with my endeavors and help me take the manuscript forward.

To his credit, this mentor cum agent had pointed out valid loopholes and gaps that a first-time author would not have been aware of. But the problem with this gentleman was that he pushed his solutions along with the problems he identified. And those brought new problems. Without my knowledge, in my enthusiasm to see my name in print, I started rewriting under his mentoring. Thirty percent down this second draft, I began to lose steam and the connect which I had previously enjoyed with the characters. The writing slowed down.

It was then that this stranger from one of the social networks chanced to see samples of my earlier draft and took pains to congratulate me and ask me about the progress of the full novel. This was the exact push that rekindled my interest and I shared the developments with him. Mahesh (his name) turned out to be a person who shared my interests about various subjects including history, literature and legends. After going through my journey and the latest half draft, he asked me a plain question, “Why are you turning into a scribe to your agent? Why are you letting him change the crux of your characters? As juvenile as it looked your earlier draft was far more original and endearing than this new one.”

It was then that the truth about the ownership of characters hit me. Despite my newbie attempts, my characters carried an air of independence and originality in my earlier draft. The agent’s way of looking at the story was somehow strengthening the stereotypes that publishers believed would sell. Not his mistake as the gentleman had a paid mandate from me. But Mahesh’s inputs made me think and rethink about the whole thing from an independent perspective. His was an honest reader feel.

I decided to not stick to publisher stereotypes and assert my writing the way I wanted. Now it does feel that I am making a villain out of my writing coach. He wasn’t and I did take stock of the problems he pointed out and examined them in an objective way. I rejected the solutions he wanted to impress upon me. I was also lucky to have had a few author friends who backed me up saying while I need to agree with those writing loopholes, I needed to find my own ways to fill the gaps rather than take someone else’s directions.

The process took time, given my demanding job as an investment professional and the long writers block that arose out of structural dead lock in the storyline. Contemplating, deconstructing books of similar genre, deeper reading into scriptures (Mine is a Puranic fiction) and a move and I should mention my mother’s backing which was the strongest, everything helped me re-work the basic storyline. Two years down the line I could arrive at a draft that finally satisfied me from within before I Self Published it on Kindle Platform (Honestly, I was not left with much courage to tap the doors of traditional publishing houses after all what I went through two years before). There are more beta readers who supported me through the last leg of the journey.

The experience taught me the value of Beta readers. While I serendipitously met my first beta readers, it is advisable that each author develops a network of beta readers who support the writing with constructive criticism while respecting the writer’s independent thoughts. The criticism they give needs to respect and empathize with the writer’s endeavors.

 

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Original Picture credit : lecatts.wordpress.com

To support it with an analogy. You are a mother who just delivered your newborn. The last thing you want to hear from anyone at this stage is about the possible flaws that your child has. It can make you fly into a rage. Hearing insensitive criticism on a freshly written piece or a blog post evokes almost similar emotions from a writer. But it is also necessary that this writing piece goes out to the world as perfect as a human can make it.

 

A Beta reader (There are alpha readers and beta readers for those wanting to go technically deeper. But here, I chose to use the term Beta reader as a common term for both) is free from biases that might generally exist in the publishing world. Their reading experience makes them aware of the variety of thought and originality of each writer and they value it. Any author reading this post of mine will agree that writing is a lonely journey and the company of these nurturing entities will brighten it up when we need it.

Indian publishing ecosystem is yet to acknowledge the value of beta readers. It would be great for the ecosystem if it got together and created a hobby-career stream for them. Mine gave me invaluable opinions, those which mattered more than the paid advice I got from professionals. Currently, an Indian writer needs to develop his or her own network of beta readers either from friends and family, social networks or from the many budding blogging/writing clubs. My mother, husband, and a few friends are usually my first beta readers. Today, my network is on the rise. The investment of time and effort were worth it and to a newbie, a conscious effort is warranted. The beta readers are indeed more crucial than writing coaches. I can’t emphasize it more because my Beta reader saved me from becoming a scribe to my writing coach!

Learnings from writing my first novel

Writing the first novel is equivalent to giving birth to your first child. It is just that the gestation period for a baby is nine months and that for the novel can take years. In my case It has taken more than five years out of which more than half  the period was spent fighting the writer’s block. This post is to pen down what I learnt from the process and felt through. The aim is to share my experience with those who want to put their first story to print and others who want to know how it feels.

Captive of the imaginary world

Face it, we are all captives of that world, among those people who we think we created. Like many authors (or authors in the making), I feel that they are not the characters who we created, but those who existed in a world not known to us and simply chose us to become their medium. Yes our worlds are as real in our minds as this one and our characters are as real. They move before our eyes, living to achieve their aims and standing by their beliefs and principles, at times inspiring you, at times annoying you, at times leaving you in a whirlwind of uncertainties as you grapple with that blank page where the scenes raging in your mind refuse to come out of your fingers. Neither do they let you go about your life in peace. But do what you can, you helplessly love them. If you do, then I think you are on the right track in believing your own story.

Writing Blocks – Live with them but keep your faith

I am not ashamed to say this. The first time I put my story in writing, it was almost five years before. Have trashed two full drafts and a countless number of half drafts. I can go and say that in the last five years, I might have faced a writing block of more than three years. This, I attribute to my failure to make writing into a discipline or a routine and commit to myself about writing 500-1000 words every day. It was easier to put it on the ‘inspiration’, ‘characters’, ‘job’, ‘boss’ (I can’t blame my husband for everything ;-))

What could also have helped me overcome my block is more regular reading. Towards the end, I discovered that reading does help when you are stuck. Just that one might need to work his or her way out of being influenced. Either ways, a badly written page is much better than a blank

Encouraging family and friends – They go a long way

It helps to share the problems in writing with friends and family. We feel that only a writer can understand another writer’s problem. But believe in the magic of your mom saying ‘if not you, who can do it.’ or your best friend saying, ‘I will kill you if you give it up’. It worked in my case.

I also learnt to send drafts of whatever I wrote to some very encouraging beta readers. I can’t express in words what their support meant to me. Networking with other writers, the travellers in the same boat, does go a longer way. A chat with experienced people helps. Karma turns around, so be generous with the good side of it. I was lucky to be blessed with many writers who were genuine and generous with guidance.

I was also blessed to have some lovely friends who contributed in more than one way. I shall take all their names in another befitting post (the list is a bit long).

Can you keep your faith?

After trashing close to 280,000 words before this current draft which I am not yet sure if it is final (Currently a professional editor is working on it and she too, I feel is a gift of this universe to my endeavours), one question remains. Can I keep my faith. I think I will. This is my commitment to my characters. I owe them that. Call it serendipity or my own inner voice. I have my principal character saying these words in my manuscript. They shall be my inspiration for now and for life.

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Hope this will be of some use to others who want to know how it feels and what one passes through. The journey is arduous but immensely fulfilling. I have only completed a draft and it still has quite some distance to go before it becomes a book. Hoping to get there soon.