I’ve never been much good at plotting. The only time I attempted a chapter-by-chapter plot was a long time ago, with my second novel. The first one had turned out just fine without my attempts to lay down rules and guidelines for the characters to follow, but I was an insecure new writer and everyone was telling me I should learn how to plot. The result was that at first I could hardly write one paragraph after another. Then the characters took the story off the rails in spite of my maps. I happen to feel that the story or novel isn’t truly “alive” until the characters do or say something I didn’t plan, so I wasn’t too alarmed. (Another way of saying this: I trust my subconscious to know more about writing than my conscious mind, the planner.) But it messed up my pretty plot. Since then, I’ve eased up on myself – and on my characters.
The new novel is no different in this respect. I know where I’m headed and have a fairly good idea of the scenery along the route. What I don’t have is the Triple A road map. I did make the decision to alternate chapters between the two major characters (but they’ve violated that rule already). I’m going along for the ride and enjoying the view. So it brought me up short when I suddenly realized that the book falls into three parts and I’ve just finished Part I. Whether the parts are equal in length or not, I don’t know yet. But I saw the first of the minor story arcs and it’s complete. I’d known about the major arc of the book, of course; that’s what made me start writing it in the first place. This is an exciting discovery for the author!
Teaching creative writing for all those years was both a blessing and a curse for me. It made me far too conscious of my “process” – something which I’m convinced would’ve done better staying unconscious. (I wrote an article about this, “Creativity in the Fish Bowl,” about creating a story from scratch in full view of my students.) But I’m starting to think I’m finally getting all the pieces of the puzzle together – at this late stage in my career. I’m letting my characters live their own stories, but at the same time I can entertain thoughts about structure without derailing the whole process.
This book is consuming me in a way no other novel managed. I’m even over my horror of first drafts (think: pulling teeth). And I dream about it almost every night. It’s a change for me not to be writing science fiction, but then again, what we don’t know about life in 1st century Britain is enormous. Imagining how it might’ve been is not that different from describing worlds that have not yet come into being.
This may not be the most efficient way to write a novel (or a short story, for that matter). But I seem to be stuck with it, and it works for me. As they say online, YMMV.