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Friday, February 19, 2010

Revision: Plotting Along

"Where do I begin?"

That thought ran through my head a number of times since I received the revision notes from my agent, Rachelle Gardner. The first week, I had no idea how to answer the question. I needed time to absorb the feedback and allow myself to come to grips with the huge task ahead of me.

Another week has passed, and I'm eager to dig into my story. Before I begin, though, I have to rip my story apart chapter by chapter, scene by scene, remove what doesn't work, add new material, and put everything back together again. Here are the steps I'm taking.

Step 1: Jettison the Junk

One fourth of my story works--and works well. The opening has received more recognition than I could ever have imagined.

However, the story fell apart at the first major turning point. Without realizing it, I sabotaged my great beginning by moving things along too quickly and turning down the tension. Not good!

Some of the scenes in the final three-quarters of the book are great and may work with minor tweaking, but many of them have to go.

In order to discover how many chapters and scenes can stay and which will go by the wayside, I literally took my story apart. I cut my hard copy into scenes and slapped stickies on them. A check mark on a scene means it stays, an X means it's history, and a question mark means I'm not sure yet.

Step 2: Assess the Mess

Once I determine how much of the story I can use, I expect to end up with about half of it needing to be written anew. Since I love the characters, enjoy writing a rough draft, and am eager to take the rest of my story from ho-hum to happening, I'm excited.

My task now is to figure out where the holes are. To do that, I took the advice my awesome critique partner, Anne Barton, has given me on several occasions and made a set of plotting boards. Because I'm a visual person, having the story laid out before me will show me many things, including where I need to add chapters and scenes to fill in the gaps.

Step 3: Plot the Lot

When I wrote my first stories, I did very little plotting. I had an idea where my story was going, but I didn't take time to draft an overall plan. Since I tend to be OC, this surprises me. In retrospect, I think writing the stories from my heart served a purpose. I learned to go with the flow, which, for a perfectionist like me, was a valuable lesson.

Now, however, I see the value in having a plan. In fact, I won't write another story without one. Frankly, it's too much work. This is my third revision of Violets & Violins, and it's going to be more challenging in many ways than the other two. I'm up for it, but in the future I intend to spare myself the trouble.

To make my plotting boards, I bought 22 x 28 inch white poster board with a faint grid pattern. I got packages of three sheets at Office Max. Using a yardstick and a fine point black Sharpie, I broke the board into 5-1/2 x 8 inch boxes with one-inch headers. (Vertical lines at 5-1/2, 11, and 16-1/2 inches. Horizontal lines at 1, 9, 10, 18, and 19 inches.) Because I like things even, I cut off the bottom inch so the boxes would be the same size.

I then added a header for each box. The first row begins with "Chapter 1 ~ Scene 1" and ends with "Chapter 1 ~ Scene 4." It's rare that I have more than four scenes per chapter, so this format should work well for me. I created 13 plotting boards, which will cover up to 39 chapters, the maximum number I've had.

Step 4: Glean the Scenes

Each scene of my book will fill one box on the plotting board. In the picture above, you'll see the first three chapters of my book laid out in mock-up form. Chapter one has three scenes, the others just two.

Next, I have fun with sticky notes. I use a couple of two-inch squares and one four-inch lined square per scene. Stickies work well because I can move them around easily as I shift scenes within the story.

The small sticky on the left is where I list the characters. The color identifies the POV character. Since I write romances, there are usually just two: the hero and heroine. A blue sticky is for the hero, and pink identifies scenes where the POV is the heroine's. If I have other POV characters, each would receive a different color. On the POV character's sticky I list other characters who appear in the scene.

The small sticky on the right tells me when and where the scene takes place.

The large sticky is for the what, why, and how of the scene. I use two colors. In my example, orange indicates scenes where I am pulling the hero and heroine apart. Purple is when I give the characters and the reader a respite--and some hope that things are going to work out. If I see too much purple, I know I need to ramp up the tension and increase the conflict.

What is happening? I give a brief overview of what takes place in the scene.

Why is this scene included? I list the reasons why this scene is important to the story. This step helps me justify every scene. I like to have at least two reasons for each scene.

What devices are used? I list the techniques I use in a scene, e.g. dialogue, internal monologue, action, narration.

Here's the first scene from my story as an example.

I'm busy filling my plotting boards at this point, using information from existing scenes as well as new ones Gwynly, my hubby and plotting partner extraordinaire, and I have brainstormed.

As I move through the plotting process, I'll be sharing what I'm learning.

• • • • •

If you're a writer, do you tend to be a pantser or a plotter?

What steps do you take before you begin writing a story?

Do you think a plotting board would help you?

If you're not a writer, how do you go about preparing for a major project?


Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

I'm usually a pantser. If I start with a chart of any kind, because I'm such a detail person, I find I could have written the story in the same amount of time it takes me to do the chart!!

When I'm done running with the story, it's during the revisions/edits that I start to break it down, organize and begin the real work of writing!

Keli Gwyn said...

Donna, sounds like you have a system that works well for you, which is great.

I'm a detail person like you are. Don't think that's much of a surprise, is it? :)

Richard Mabry said...

So glad you shared this. I'm a semi-pantser who starts out knowing the beginning, turning point, and end of the story, content to let the flow and the characters dictate the rest. But your approach looks great, and I'll probably give it a try.

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

Since I'm in the revision stage I'm getting a ton out of these posts. I did the SOMP thing for the first novel I wrote and for my third one I worked through Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel workbook. It really helped me organize my thoughts and make every scene intentional.

I admire your process and since I'm a visual person I suspect something like this would work well for me. It's one thing to have it all in a book, but laid out like that would really drive certain aspects home for me.

I'll keep reading b/c I'm learning here.
~ Wendy

Tawna Fenske said...

Wow, what a terrific example of a very organized way to approach the revision process. I'm bookmarking this blog post so I can remember it the next time I have to go through this!


Krista Phillips said...

Oh my goodness! I'm in absolute awe and I gotta admit... I need a brown paper bag at the thought of it all.

I am a panster through and through. I do go back about halfway through, reread, see where I've come from, timeline, and things, then decide for sure where I am going. but wow. You put me in awe.

Keli Gwyn said...

Richard, as a former pantser, it wasn't easy for me to convert, but I'm a born again plotter. Since I'm a detail person, this approach will work well for me, although I realize it's not for everyone. After embarking on my third rewrite of this story, I realized moving ahead without a plan would be counterproductive. Thus, the new approach.

Barbara Scott shared a link on Twitter yesterday to a great post on The Title is "The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning – Part One." For me, the sub-title is what pulled me in: "The Minimum First Tier Things an Organic Writer Needs to Know About a Story Before It Will Work." The author, Larry Brooks, points out some valid reasons for doing some planning before writing--in a nice but direct way. I found his information quite helpful and see a great deal of truth in what he said. If you'd like, you can read the article at

Keli Gwyn said...

Tawna, thanks for visiting my blog. I hope the information on my revision process proves helpful.

I love your name. Very unique.

BonSue Brandvik said...

I found this site when I followed one of your agent, Rachelle Gardner's, Twitter posts. Great site and very interesting approach to mapping a story.

I write paranormal romance. I have completed my first novel, and while I am in the editing/looking for an agent phase, I am also working on three more novels. Normally, when I think of an idea for a story, I write random scenes and then later piece them together like a jig saw puzzle.

Being a bit OC myself, this visual approach might be exactly the type of organization I need to make that process a lot easier!

Coincidentally, I have one of those faint-squared sheets in my arts & crafts closet (left over from Superbowl betting squares!) Thanks for taking the time to write such detailed instructions! ...BonSueB

Keli Gwyn said...

Wendy, like you, I saw the need to make my scenes intentional. That's why I make myself answer "Why?" for each scene now.

Being visual, having the story laid out in front of me will help. I'll see where there are gaps, where I've spent too much time in one POV, when I have too many scenes taking place in one location, etc. I also like the ease of moving things around. Let's here it for sticky notes!

Keli Gwyn said...

Krista, goodness. Didn't mean to make the mommy-to-be hyperventilate. Shame on me. LOL.

I've started a number of stories without a firm plan in mind. While I had lots of fun that way, I didn't end up with a marketable project. Even after two rewrites, my current story fell short. It wasn't easy to admit that pantsing it had failed me, but I did it. Now to embrace my new m.o.

I shared a link to a great article in my reply to Richard's comment above. You might find it helpful as well.

Anne Barton said...

All those colorful sticky notes make my heart go pitter-patter.

Thanks for the nice photos and clear explanation of your process, Keli.


Keli Gwyn said...

BonSue, thanks for following Rachelle's link. I'm honored she chose to share it--and that you retweeted it.

I think a set of plotting boards could make an excellent tool for a "puzzle-piece" writer. That way, you could write your scenes, pop them on the sheets where you think they might go, and move them around so you can see what works, what doesn't, and where there are gaps that need to be filled.

The poster board with the faint grid really makes creating the plotting boards a lot easier.

James Killick said...

Keli, thank you for such a personal insight into the work you are doing on your current novel. I followed a similar process to you, and came to the same conclusions i.e. next time I'll work the plot out first! Writing can be such a lonely business, but it's nice when you find someone who's been to the same places as you on their writing journey.

JDuncan said...

I'm revising my novel over the next couple of months as well, though mine is an editor revision, not an agent's. I basically have to do a significant rewrite on the first half of the book. Not enough tension, hero's story not revealed quick enough, not enough of the villain, etc. Not horrible, but still some work to get done right.

I do plot however. I had my book plotted out chapter by chapter from start to finish before I began writing it. I'm doing the same for the sequel, only difference is that I'm using Microsoft's OneNote this time. It's similar to a computer version of the poster board. It's a very useful program for plotting. I can't write without plotting. My brain just doesn't function that way.

Susan Martins Miller said...

I do plot in advance, though it's always subject to revision. Another technique I use is make a sort of graph. Down the side are the character names. Across the bottom are the chapter numbers. I try to make sure each character has a story with conflicts and decisions. I use a rough graph to visually plot out where the rise and fall of each character's action is in the flow of the book. If I do this for several characters, I can see where the lines intersect. In other words, is each story line contributing sufficiently to the overarching conflict of the book, or are some characters turning out to be sidelines? Are the lines moving toward each other in the later chapters? Reviewing the pacing halfway through gives me a chance to make adjustments and be sure everything matters by the time I get to the climax.

Stacy S. Jensen said...

Thanks for sharing this system.

Keli Gwyn said...

Anne, thanks for inspiring me to give the plotting boards a try. I've found a tool that works for me. The story is laid out in a format that enables me to see the flow, that is large enough so my not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be eyes get a break, and that is bright, colorful, and fun.

I'm glad you found the pictures helpful. Since I'm a visual person, I figured showing the boards would be beneficial to others like me.

Keli Gwyn said...

James, I'm glad you've found plotting a story before writing it to be helpful.

I've written six novels and rewritten three of them (this one twice) using my former SOTP method. After producing ten stories that didn't hold together, I knew there had to be a better way. Plotting to the rescue! I wish I'd learned my lesson earlier. I'd have saved myself a lot of work.

Keli Gwyn said...

J Duncan, I hope your revisions go well. Your situation shows that plotting isn't a guarantee of success, but it does help, doesn't it? My agent was quick to remind me that revising is part of the the writing process and that writers and authors can expect to do a great deal of it. The willingness to revise is crucial, which you, who are revising for an editor, know very well.

Since I began writing four years ago, I've only heard of one author who got her revisions back from her editor without a single thing that needed to be changed. She was shocked, even though it was on 80th book!

Keli Gwyn said...

Susan, it sounds like you have another tool that works for you and serves to ensure that there's plenty of conflict. I like your line, "'s always subject to revision." How true. While the writing of a first draft is fun and rewarding, I'm seeing that it's important to be open to revisions because if we want to sell our stories, we'll be doing plenty of them. :)

Keli Gwyn said...

Stacy, thanks for taking time to read the post and leave a comment. I hope you found the information useful.

Jarmara Falconer said...

Wow you have got a lot of work in front of you. It makes me take a second look at the way I write my novel.

Thank you for sharing your idea with us.

Keli Gwyn said...

Jarmara, I do have a good deal of work ahead of me, but I'm excited about it. My story will be far better as a result of the revisions. I know the plotting will be time consuming, but when I sit down to write, I'll have the knowledge that the scenes I create will be stronger and more likely to work. Having deleted so many of the words I wrote during my last revision and facing the same chore this time led me to plotting. Taking the hatchet (or chainsaw as the case may be) to my manuscript hurt, and I'm all for doing whatever I can to spare myself that pain. :)

Jessica said...

Alright Keli, first of all...your story has an outlaw??? Woohooo! I want to read it! LOL

I'm amazed at your organization. Looking at all that is really overwhelming. But the printing up of scenes and checking them, that is something I think I could do. Make sure to let us know how this works out for the story! Go you! :-)

C.J. Redwine said...

Looks like you're well on your way to having a fabulously revised ms on your hands!

I agree that taking some time to let the revision letter sink in is wise. We need some time to assimilate and adjust our course to allow room for new creativity to flow into our story.

Good luck to you! I know you'll nail it.

MaryC said...

Keli, thanks so much for the detailed description and the pictures. I've always been a pantzer but my current book is stalling and I think I may give this a try. I've been hearing people talk about storyboards for years but I've never seen it outlined as clearly and helpfully as you've done. I'm a very visual learner so this was great.

As I was reading though, the pantzer in me kept raising a question. You're doing this with a story you already know well. Do you think the process will work as well in the future when you're starting from scratch with a new story?

Keli Gwyn said...

Jessie, yup, there's an outlaw all righty, and he's one bad dude.

Plotting each scene takes time, true, but I've learned the hard way that not plotting made a lot of work for me later. I decided planning has it's merits, and so I gave plotting a try. It's working so well for me that I'm a convert. :)

Keli Gwyn said...

CJ, thanks for the vote of confidence. I knew as soon as I heard Rachelle's take on things that she was right on. Once I got over the shock, a delicious sense of excitement took over. While I loved the story the way it was, the new and improved version will be far more fun for the reader--and a blast to write.

I hope your revisions are going well and that the creativity is flowing freely.

Keli Gwyn said...

Mary, your mention of storyboards reminds me of my Gwynly's comment earlier today when we were discussing my plotting boards. In his logical male manner, he said they make sense to him because that's how many movies are created.

At one point in my writing journey, I tried using an Excel spreadsheet approach, creating a detailed list of info for each scene after I wrote it. While I ended up with a binder full of neat and tidy pages for each scene, I couldn't see the story as clearly as I can this way. The plotting boards approach isn't for everyone, but it works well for me.

To address your question regarding using my process on a new story, my answer is: I can't wait! By plotting the story ahead of time, I feel confident I will end up with a story that flows well, is filled with conflict, and is more tightly written. Rather than sitting down to write and wondering what will go into the next scene, I'll be able to consult my plotting boards and get right to work, which will be freeing and fun.

Ron Estrada said...

I've been doing this on a spreadsheet, but I like the visual. I may have to give that a try. Especially while I'm writing, I hate leaving the document to pull up my spreadsheet. It breaks the flow.

Dianne Duvall said...

I'm a semi-pantser like Richard. When I start a new manuscript, I know going in what the major plot points will be and just let the rest flow. This is largely because I spent several days writing an extremely detailed plot outline for the first manuscript I ever wrote . . then, after a week of writing, got a great idea that altered said plot dramatically, making it stronger and rendering the outline useless. I was so upset over wasting almost a week on that outline that I never wrote another one.

I sympathize with you over the extensive revisions. One of my manuscripts ended up being about 40,000 words too long. Editing it down was a serious learning experience.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this layout. I find it extremely helpful. I'm preparing to make "clean up" revisions to my novel. In my mind, I was planning to tackle the concepts that you have discussed. Now you've given me a physical plan to accomplish it.

Liz Czukas said...

Holy cats, that's quite a system! I can see how it would work, though, I'm really visual, too. I especially like the idea of the two shades of action (together or apart). As a fellow romance writer, I imagine that really helps.

I'll be keeping an eye on your blog--this sounds like a fascinating process. Good luck!

- Liz

Carrie C. Stone said...

This is great to read. I just finished doing rewrites on my book too which resulted from writing from my head and not starting out with a set plan. I will remember this great advice in the future.
Thanks so much!
Carrie Stone

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Maybe you prefer paper, but most screenwriting software comes with this sticky-note feature because screenwriting is done on what they call "The Board".

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! screenwriting software comes with a really superior version of the board.

Final Draft has a good one.

I find having 'cards' of expandable length makes it easier to organize sudden insights.

Keli Gwyn said...

Ron, I tried using an Excel spreadsheet, but I ended up spending lots of time inputting information instead of writing. Limiting myself to what I can fit on the sticky notes is my way of combating my perfectionism and tendency to get bogged down with details. Since I don't consider the sticky notes as professional or permanent as spreadsheets, I'm able to jot down the basics and move on. This particular plotting board system works for me, but there are others that work just as well.

The primary advantage of the plotting boards for me is that I know where my story is going before I write. I've already deleted about 70K of this same story in a self-imposed rewrite, and I will be chopping some 40-60K this time around. I've learned the hard way that using the SOTP method has ended up making far more work for me in the long run. My new plotting system was borne of a need to find a better way. :)

Keli Gwyn said...

Dianne, I like your use of the term "semi-pantser." I've seen how freeing it can be to write without constraints and wouldn't want to lose the joy that can come from going with the flow. However, I see having a plan in place before I begin my journey as a way to avoid work in the long run. If I find that some scenes won't work as I go along and that others would better support my overall story goals, all I have to do is toss a few sticky notes and fill out new ones.

Keli Gwyn said...

VV, I hope your revisions go well. For me, being able to see what I have that works and where the gaps are is important. That's one of the major reasons I took the time to create my plotting boards.

Keli Gwyn said...

Liz, welcome to another visual person and fellow romance writer. One of my favorite aspects of the plotting boards is the use of color. A couple of clerks at Office Max found me sitting in the floor in the sticky notes section with a package of poster board a pile of the cute little pads beside me. They joked that it looked like I was plotting something. I laughed and told them I was a writer doing just that. What I was up to was figuring out how I could use the rainbow of colors available to simplify my system. By assigning special colors to certain aspects of my story, I can view my boards and quickly see when there's too much of one color--before I've taken time to write all the scenes.

Keli Gwyn said...

Carrie, I hope the information is helpful to you on future projects. Congrats on completing your rewrite.

Keli Gwyn said...

Jacqueline, thanks for sharing information on some of the other great plotting systems available. To me the most important aspect of my system is the actual planning and plotting that precedes the writing. How the information is recorded is up to the individual. A computer program would work far better for those who use a lap top and work in a coffee house. Then again, I'm sure I'd get lots of attention if I showed up at my local Starbucks with my plotting boards in tow. :)

Elana Johnson said...

Holy crap, I'm speechless. If this is one end of the plotting spectrum, I'm like way on the other. But I love your ideas! You're amazing. A. Ma. Zing.

Brian said...

As a visual person, plotting on paper with boards and all looks great. But I'm not an adept tactile person and would rapidly become befuddled and annoyed. My fingers would, at some stage, fail to accommodate the demands of my eyes.

My frustrations at various plotting, planning, overview and mind-map products could fill many a blog. No more. As you will see here ( ) there is a wonderful visual planning tool that is also a fantastic word processor.

Unfortunately the product does take away virtually every possible excuse for procrastination.

Jill Kemerer said...

You and I are soooo much alike! I have the plotting board--but it's a spreadsheet. Yours is really cool! I love it!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Keli,

I adapted your story board into a Word Version with coloured text boxes, etc.

I have no room for big sheets like you've done. This should work for me. I love that you can see at a glance how many scenes are in the heroine's POV vs. the hero's.

Thanks for the inspiration! Good luck with your revisions.


Christi Craig said...

It's funny that I'm reading your post right now, minutes after I finished cutting up my outline, rearranging the scenes, and pasting it back together on a separate piece of paper.

I agree, writing without a plan and going back is terribly difficult. Like you, next time I'll start with a plan. And, I'll bookmark this post, since your technique seems well thought out and organized!


Jae Baeli said...

I'm an organic writer. I let the story come out and then i go back and fit it together and create the connections and details. I have used index cards on my giant corkboard and just moved scenes around that way. But that just helps with framework. Content, I never try to plan that out at the beginning. This way, I am never bored with the process. I don't want to know everything that's going to happen until the story fills out. Then that joy fades and is replaced by the joy of the story coming together and it being finished and ready to share.
Jae Baeli
See some of my blogs on my process:

Kelly@ JustWrite said...

I'm new to your blog and just starting out in my first real revision process (with my first set of agent notes)! Thanks for helping me figure out how to get started!

Enjoying your blog!

The Blue Lipstick Samurai said...

Love this post; details make me run around in obsessive compulsive joy.

But now I have to run around in search of a post on editing that prepares you /mentally/ for the tedious and brutal task of editing/hacking your story to bits.

Meg said...

I hopped over here from T. Anne's post about this.

I'm a plotter and I think I'm in love with your plotting board idea.

Like I want to run out to the office store now.

Bookmarking this post so I can reference it.