Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Plotting and Planning Your Pocket Novel

Kate Jackson has written a great report on Maggie Seed's appearance at the Romantic Novelists Association conference the other week. There's also a chance to put a face to a name, with a picture of Maggie on the blog.  On the RNA blog, I was absolutely delighted to see that when Maggie discussed her appearance at the conference she gave me a namecheck. As I said on my own blog recently, if anyone wonders why I do what I do, this is the reason. I get to work with a wonderful editor who appreciates my work.

Anyhow, as you'll see on Kate Jackson's blog, during the conference Maggie gave her five steps towards creating a great pocket novel. Coincidentally, I've been sharing my own five steps to creating a pocket novel with my workshop participants for some time now. They're no substitute for Maggie's tips, but I thought they might be helpful.

I'm also going to share another tip for plotting your novel.

This is the handout, as seen by my participants:

My way of 'plotting' is to think about my story for several days, then write a brief summary of about 500 words. Then I sit down and write. And believe me there is no substitute for just getting started.

I know you want more advice than that, so here are two methods that have worked for me in the past. The Taking it in Stages Method and the What Happens Next? Method

Taking it in Stages

This is a very rough example of my method, but each story is different so there is no set formula for doing this.

*Work out how many words you've got - in this case 50,000 - then split your story up into five stages.

Stage 1: The first meeting (or reunion) and hinting at initial conflicts 10,000 words

Stage 2: Developing the story and setting up any important aspects, including them starting to like each other, albeit tentatively. It's at this point you might want to bring in characters or situations that are going to be important to your ending. 10,000 words

Stage 3: Put your hero and heroine in a situation (or situations) in which they get to know each other and either one (or both) realises they're in love with the other (pivotal moment) but won't yet admit it. 10,000 words.

Stage 4: Have them deal with the problem together, but have something tear them apart so they think all is lost (black moment) 10,000 words.

Stage 5: This is the time to start tying up any loose ends, solving the problem and ultimately bringing your lovers together for their Happy Ever After. 10,000 words.

I can't do a graph here, but you may well notice that they start off going upwards towards the pivotal moment (stage 3), slip right down again at around stage 4 (the black moment), and start moving upwards again to the ending (stage 5). Incidentally 'black' doesn't have to mean desperately miserable. It can just mean the heroine thinking that the hero is never going to love her.

It's not an exact science, and you may find that some sections are shorter than others, whilst others take more than 10k words to bring about. But it is a rough guide and even if you don't stick to the word counts, the different stages of the story might be of some help to you.
The 'What Happens Next?' Method

If you start to flag, and haven't written a summary (or even if you have) it sometimes helps to make a list of what needs to happen and in what order. For example, if Jane Austen did this for Pride and Prejudice it might read:

1. Lizzie has to meet Darcy (included in this would be Bingley moving to the area, and Mrs. Bennett being determined to bring him into her daughter's lives as a possible husband).

2. Darcy has to see Lizzie's sisters and her mother behaving badly in public to form a bad opinion of the whole family, including Lizzie.

3. Jane has to be taken ill at the Bingleys' so Lizzie and Darcy have more chance to talk and get to know each other, and whilst they're still a little uncomfortable with each other, Darcy is starting to notice her 'fine eyes'.

4. Lizzie has to meet Wickham and learn (at least as far as Wickham is concerned) that Darcy has treated Wickham badly, giving her even more reason not to like Darcy.

4. Bingley has to go away suddenly, leaving Jane heartbroken and Lizzie puzzled..

5. Mr. Collins has to marry Lizzie's friend, so that Lizzie visits their vicarage and meets Darcy again at Lady de Burgh's.

6. Darcy has to propose to Lizzie - badly. So she tells him to get lost. She also has to learn about Darcy's part in Bingley going away, but also learns the truth about Wickham.

7. Lizzie goes on holiday with her aunt and uncle and they end up at Pemberly where she sees Darcy in his wet shirt (okay, Jane Austen probably didn't have that). They become more amicable now that the truth is out, and she realises she's in love (pivotal moment).

You didn't think I'd go a whole blog post without at least one gratuitous photo of a ruffled looking hunk in a wet shirt, did you?

8. Wickham and Lydia elope, leaving Lizzie believing that nothing can ever happen between her and Darcy (black moment).

9. Darcy saves the day, forces Wickham to marry Lydia. At the same time he encourages Bingley to resume his courtship of Jane.

10. He asks Lizzie once again to marry him and she says yes.

I know there's lots in between, including Lizzie's argument with Lady de Burgh, Collins's courtship of the two elder Bennett girls, and lots of other happenings, but these are the major events of the novel as they pertain to Lizzie and Darcy. If you make a similar list for your own novel it might help to focus on what needs to happen.


Try the above on one of your favourite novels, or even on a favourite film or television series, picking out the essential plot points as they happen and what the writer does to attain those aims.

If anyone has their own tips for plotting and planning your novel, I'd love to hear them.


  1. Excellent advice Sally and interesting to get your insight. And what an excellent excuse to show us the wet shirt again. I must look again at some of my stories and see how it fits with your plan. I'm afraid I realise I don't plot and usually start making notes and discover I'm actually writing the story. Ideas and settings and then characters all merge together for me and the story begins.
    Good post, thnak you.
    Chrissie (who is anonymous once more!)

  2. I'm generally a 'seat of my pants' type, Chrissie, but I realised I couldn't just say that to my workshop participants. I have used both of these methods though. I just don't use them very often.

    The 'What happens next?' method was particularly useful for my saga, which is far more complicated than the stories I write for DC Thomson.

  3. Very good advice, Sally. Thank you for putting it so clearly. It's easy to get carried away with the writing, but the plotting and planning are the important first stages.
    Love the pic!