Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Retro-Plotter part 1 - Notes and pseudo-script


Plotters plot, pantsers invent on the spot. I'm a bit in between.

Yes, I plot a bit, but I also make up things as I go. So how can I keep track of things?

It's... complicated (no, it's not)

Now the creative process is different for everyone.  I use a combination of plotting and pantsing, which causes me a different problem: I need to keep track of the story, because a. sometimes I don't remember what I made up, and b. sometimes I decide to insert some text (or even ten chapters!) into an already written storyline.

(Now, this is how I do it, that doesn't mean it is the right or the best way. But perhaps it can give you an idea.)


I'm half a plotter, half a pantser. I know roughly where to go, but some of the steps in between are extremely vague, some others I know in detail. Sometimes I decide to go back, and insert a second thread into the storyline, or a third, or even a fourth... And I hate myself for it, because the reader might never figure it out. Anyway...

World building and character creation

I plan very little up-front, except for some overall arcs and concepts. Instead, I make things up on the fly, but document them whilst doing so. That way, I won't make all my characters blond, change their eye colors, names, or get previous events wrong.

did create a little background (mostly events that happened before my story start) but to be honest, I only did that after having written 50k of words or so.

Personally, I think world building is a little overrated. I know many authors like to build complex worlds, but they're often so involved in creating an interesting world that the interesting story suffers from it (i.e. it's not interesting at all).

Again, personally, I think it's story over characters over world. But that's just me.

My working method

1. Rough plot (some single lines in 'pseudo script')
2. Play the 'why' game, or simply start writing
3. Check text against spreadsheet, update spreadsheet with latest chapters
4. Go back to 1 until done

1. Notes and pseudo-script

The parts that I plot, I plot as pseudo script,. To try to be as independent from the word processor that I use (sometimes Google Docs, sometimes Word, sometimes LibreOffice) I enclose all parts that are not part of the final story between << and >>.

That might be notes like:

<< report suicides and wildfires on television >>
<< need to work sad elements into the pizza event >>

Or something simple like:

<< team travels to Florida to face Camelia's family >>

Or sometimes it's already a complete list of events...

<< 1. spot the robbers >>
<< 2. climb down and go into the shop to protect friends >>
<< 3. fight with robbers >>
<< 4. Ellen gets beaten up, looses conscience >>
<< 5. wolf arrives to protect her >>
<< 6. wolf runs away >>
<< 7. cops arrive >>
<< 8. cops interrogate Ellen >>

Now if I have a list of events I just have to turn that into text. And that can be very hard 😁

2. Think it through, or just go for it

If I have a single line that represents a whole chapter, then I either start pantsing that chapter (holyho, here I go) or  I play the 'why' game.

The 'why' game

Ask 'what', 'who', 'why', 'when' and 'can' (4WC or W4C, the 'why' game), and keep doing that for the answers until they satisfy you, and voila, you'll automatically end up with a breakdown of the plot (for that section).

Turning that list of events into flowing prose is a bit harder 😕 but hey, writing isn't supposed to be easy!

Google Docs 'Outline'

Now this is where Google Docs comes in. Google Docs automagically creates an outline if you use bold lines that look like chapter titles. (Sometimes it gets it wrong, but it's easy to remove the ones you don't need.) In effect, bolding your chapter headers / titles automatically creates an outline. Comments like << note >> won't show up, but sometimes I use a line with a major event, keep one line above and below empty, and mark it bold, just to have it show up in the outline.

That's why I also use chapter titles. I might strip them out of the final product, but for now the outline pretty much is a list of chapter titles, and describes the whole story (click to enlarge).

I might have a plot prepped, but often not 😓...

By keeping those notes in the text, in the right places, I never lose track of them. In the end, I just have to search for any occurrence of << and I'll find my leftover notes.

Perhaps it would be better to use Scrivener or a similar tool, but I'm too familiar with Excel and Google Docs, so for now I'm fine.

Implicitly following the way of the Dodo

The good news: once all << have been turned into story, the notes are gone and the story is complete.

The bad news: once every << is gone, you'll have lost all your notes.

Two files - story and snippets

Another method I've adopted is working in two documents. One document is my 'story' document. It contains all the chapters I've completed. They're properly ordered, named, numbered. When I'm writing something new that connects to all previous stuff (ie. continuing the main story) I do so in that document.

My second document 'snippets' contains all the things I wrote for future use. Chapters I wrote ahead of time. Notes, snippets, snide remarks, ideas. Document one should keep growing, slowly and steadily, document two should be empty when the book is done.

If document two isn't empty, it means I have stuff left for a sequel 😈

A practical example: the first draft of my first novel was maybe 80k words, and the snippets part was pretty much empty. So...

My Novel - story - 80k
My Novel - snippets - 5k

Based on some feedback I did an extensive rewrite, and added 70k of words. More than half the chapters were new, and the book became way to large for a single volume.

My Novel - story - 150k
My Novel - snippets - 5k

Then I set out to split the story in two, creating book 1 My Novel, and moving all the left-over bits into the snippets file.

My Novel - story - 100k
My Novel - snippets - 55k

Book one's done, so let's rename that snippets file and start working on book 2...

The Sequel - story - 0k
The Sequel - snippets - 55k

So I keep adding new material to the story, or use already prepared stuff from the snippets.

The Sequel - story - 17k
The Sequel - snippets - 50k

Hopefully, when book 2 is done, most of the snippets are gone, like this, and I can prepare for the final part.

The Sequel - story - 100k
The Sequel - snippets - 10k

Trust me, it's less complicated than it sounds 😁

Three files

Well, to be honest I'm using three files. A text document 'story' with the story thus far, the 'snippets' text document with ideas and stuff yet to use, and my 'notes'. That's a spreadsheet that I haphazardly update, and is mostly a glorified timeline with some notes on cast and magic added to it...

More about that in the next part.

Continued in The Retro-Plotter part 2...

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