How does an author go about plotting a novel? Tweet This Plotting boot camp for fiction writers in South Tahoe, apparently. Now, that kind of boot camp sounds downright fun.
Still, I had no idea what it meant, so I asked C. S. Lakin if she was up for an interview. Here are the results.
Lisa: Why a boot camp specifically for plotting a novel?
Susanne: Plotting a novel is a highly complex process, and even experienced novelists struggle with structure and second-guessing their scenes and scene placement.
Brainstorming is usually done in private, alone, without any constructive feedback. There’s something exciting and magical that happens in a small group of 10-12 writers when novel storylines are kicked around and ideas are streaming. The other thing that I love about the plotting boot camp is that we hold it in a beautiful house in a peaceful, gorgeous setting, with numerous fireplaces and decks and views, which makes it conducive to both work and be creative.
Sharing meals, hanging out in the evenings, and living with other adults (whom you’ve just met) is a unique experience, kind of like a family reunion but without all the drama. Plus we get to eat a lot of yummy food and mounds of chocolate.
Lisa: Wow, when I finally get to writing a novel, I know how I plan to do it—plotting boot camp. So, what are the biggest novel plotting problems you see?
Susanne: It’s all about structure. Novels, in general, follow very specific structure, and aspiring novelists need to dig deep into structure to understand how to lay out a story in a solid way. The first big challenge is coming up with a killer concept. Too many writers spend months of their life writing a novel with a boring or weak premise. It’s a waste of time.
So, again, brainstorming your concept and premise with a group of savvy, insightful writers will help you sift through your ideas to get to the one with real potential.
Lisa: How does one go about solving some of these plotting problems?
Susanne: The two best ways to master plotting is to study structure—learn what scenes are needed and where they fit into your story. Tweet This This is critical. There are plenty of books, blogs, and podcasts (not to mention workshops and conferences) that teach structure.
My books Layer Your Novel and The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction pretty much cover all the basics about novel framework. Though those are just the tip of the iceberg, as writers need to master character development, scene structure, description and so many other novel elements.
The second best way to master plotting is to grab a dozen or so best-selling novels in your niche genre and deconstruct them. Study everything about them—writing style, structure, amount and type of description, vocabulary, balance of dialogue and action and thought, how emotion is shown and how much, etc. To master your genre, you need to know it inside and out.
What’s your advice to a writer who’s just starting to figure out about plot? Tweet This
Just what I said earlier: it’s a twofold process. You have to study novel structure and work on laying out your scenes to fit the structure. And you have to dig deep into your genre and study the masters so that the novels you write will fit alongside the best sellers and meet those targeted readers’ expectations.
Of your 20 novels, what’s the plot you love the most and why?
That’s a hard one because I have so many favorites. I’d probably say The Map across Time is my favorite plot because it has time-travel twists, with characters “running into themselves” at various points in the story. There are also lots of highly surprising twists that never cease to tickle me. More than anything, I love great complex characters that have intense inner conflicts and struggles, and who are highly driven toward their goals with passion. That particular fantasy book has it all.
What else do we need to know about plot?
Writing a novel is not easy. Don’t believe anyone who says it is. Or who says anyone can write a novel if they just read a lot of novels. You can watch a lot of TV shows about doctors, but that hardly makes you qualified and skilled to walk into an operating room and perform an open heart surgery. Granted, attempting to write a novel probably won’t put anyone’s life at risk. But, as with any worthy undertaking, you have to approach novel writing as a professional and do your homework and put in the hours to master the craft.
Can’t novelists break the rules and still write a great novel?
Yes, you can break the rules about structure and write any kind of novel you like. Tweet This That doesn’t guarantee, though, that the novel’s plot will hold up. It sometimes won’t. The more your veer, the more you risk failure. Why? Because readers are ingrained with a knowledge and expectation of story structure. We are all raised with it. We see it everywhere, even in beer commercials.
One of the best plots I’ve ever seen shown in a brief amount of time was a Super Bowl Budweiser commercial, about a puppy that runs away and finally returns home. That commercial has all the “ten key scenes” in it, even though each of those segments is but a few seconds long.
I often experiment, and my best book (IMO) uses a very unusual structure. It’s an epic family saga that covers forty years, one chapter a year, and each chapter has 3-4 scenes that are all separated by months of time. I envisioned a photo album, with each scene a snapshot of a family on a page.
Yet, even with the experimental (literary) structure, Intended for Harm, still has a clear protagonist with a goal, themes with heart that run through the novel, conflict and high stakes that build to a big climactic moment (or three), and a concept with a kicker, which are what I call the four essential “corner pillars” of novel construction.
So realize that you can still be creative while working within structure. If you follow traditional framework, it will make novel writing so much easier and take much of the stressful guesswork out of the process.
Lisa: That brings me back to plotting boot camp, which sounds like a great way to delve into the process. Who can benefit from your upcoming plotting boot camp?
Susanne: Anyone interested in mastering novel structure—beginning to advanced writers.
Lisa: Can you tell us more about the group process in plotting boot camp—how it works and why it’s so valuable?
Susanne: I like to set the ground rules that emphasize a couple of key things. First, brainstorming ideas with others involves no judgement. We all come up with a lot of lame ideas, and that happens in the boot camps. The idea is to let ideas flow without criticism. Laughing is good. Silly ideas come along and are discarded. We don’t judge others’ ideas, nor do we feel embarrassed about our own dumb ideas. In the midst of brainstorming great ideas shape up.
Lisa: Those are good rules. You can’t be very creative with a critic on your shoulder—your own critic or someone elses. It’s when we give ourselves freedom with no judgment that the juicy stuff can surface. What other ground rules do you have?
Susanne: When we’re working on one author’s ideas for his novel, he is the one, ultimately, that decides how the story will play out. He can reject ideas or adopt them. It’s really a fun process, and, of course, I throw a lot of instruction and homework into the mix.
Writers need to do some studying before they come and be familiar with my layering method and understand the four key pillars of novel construction: concept with a kicker, protagonist with a goal, theme with a heart, and conflict with high stakes.
Lisa: That sounds catchy. Have you done this boot camp before? If so, can you share a story about a plotting breakthrough from the group? If not, maybe an example in working with someone or in a workshop?
Susanne: Yes, I did two plotting boot camps last year (though I’m also teaching scene structure boot camps now, as well). Everyone has epiphanies throughout the three full days of work. It’s nonstop. When we went over the transformational character journey at one of the boot camps, one of the attendees put together a fantastic list of his 6 key scenes charting his protagonist’s emotional journey.
It was so terrific that everyone was flabbergasted and inspired. I put his material together as a handout to help demonstrate what this transformational journey is all about. You can download it here.
Lisa: Wow, thanks for sharing that with us. What’s the biggest benefit of the boot camp?
Susanne: Writers come with some ideas and leave with a fully fleshed-out novel outline. That’s tremendous. From there, writers are excited to head home and hit the computer keys to start writing their story. I use the method I teach as well, for all my novels. I feel the layering method is the easiest and best way to ensure a plot that rocks.
C.S. Lakin is the author of twenty novels and nine writing craft books (The Writer’s Toolbox Series). She works professionally as a copyeditor and writing coach for authors, agents, and publishers in six continents and critiques more than two hundred manuscripts a year. She also guest blogs on the top writing blogs and teaches workshops around the country.
Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive provides year-long instruction for writers. Find Susanne’s writing courses here. (note: we are proud affiliates and will receive a commission if you sign up for her paid courses.)
Readers, share your questions about plot—or other novel writing challenges—as a comment below.